The earl, his repudiated wife and the lady of his heart
In previous posts I have touched upon the fact that most medieval marriages were arranged, often with little consideration for the feelings of those involved. This was true for both the groom and the bride, but in general we feel sorrier for the coerced bride than her husband, probably because men had the possibility of consoling themselves elsewhere – not an option for the well-born lady unless she wanted to be labelled a whore.
Today, I aim to introduce you to a gentleman who was as much a marital prize as was his wife, namely Richard FitzAlan, son and heir to Edmund FitzAlan, 9th Earl of Arundel, and Alice de Warenne. There are uncertainties as to when our young hero saw the light of the day, some advocating 1306, others 1313. These days, the majority seem to lean towards 1306 – but given future events it would have suited Richard to put forward a later birthdate. More of that later.
Richard grew up in turbulent times. After the death of Edward I, the political stability in England went downhill, this due to the inexperience of the new king coupled with Edward II’s penchants for favouritism. Plus things weren’t made easier by a decade of bad harvests, the constant Scottish issue (to some extent sorted by Bannockburn) and the unrest on Ireland. And then, of course, there was the matter of Hugh Despenser, the king’s favourite from 1318 or so. Our Hugh was good at alienating the other barons, most of whom regarded him as a greedy megalomaniac – a characteristic he probably had in common with quite a few of his peers.
Anyway: Richard’s father had originally sided with the barons who protested against Edward II’s dependency on Piers Gaveston. In fact, the 9th Earl of Arundel took an active part in the rebellions that ended with Piers’ death in 1312. However, in the coming years the earl grew closer to his king, and by the time Despenser took centre stage, Arundel was firmly in the royal party. To further cement his position, in 1321 Arundel married his son and heir – Richard – to the eldest Despenser daughter, Isabel. The happy couple was fifteen (or eight, if we go for the later birthdate for Richard) and nine respectively.
At the time, the wedding made perfect political sense. Edward II was inordinately fond of Hugh, and whoever the king preferred ended up with the juicer appointments. Obviously, Arundel hoped that his son would benefit from his close association with Despenser. Nothing at the time indicated that Despenser would soon be out on his ear, and the king enjoyed ruddy good health, so his reign was expected to be long and happily dominated by Hugh Despenser.
What the newlyweds thought of each other was neither here nor there. I imagine Richard as sullen and angry at being obliged to marry a girl so much his junior. Isabel was probably intimidated by the adolescent youth – but her husband stood in line to becoming one of the wealthiest men in England, heir not only to the Arundel estates but also, through his mother, to the Earldom of Surrey seeing as John de Warenne, Richard’s uncle, was a victim of a loveless marriage and lived estranged from his wife.
The years 1322- 1326 were disruptive, with the king and Despenser fighting a losing battle against the growing opposition among the king’s barons. Having the queen, Isabella of France, side with the rebels did not help. Having Roger Mortimer and Isabella invade England with the young Prince Edward, heir to the throne, at their side, definitely nailed down the coffin on the Despenser -Edward II act. Suddenly, being married to a Despenser was not so much a good thing…
In November of 1326 both Arundel and Hugh Despenser met their deaths. Arundel was supposedly executed with a blunt sword – a cruel and extended death – while Hugh’s death was made into a gory spectacle. Young Richard was suddenly the earl – except that he wasn’t, as his father was attainted, and so Richard FitzAlan was hastily reduced to a nobody and was obliged to flee the country.
At the time, his wife Isabel was pregnant, and was delivered of a son in 1327. Being married saved Isabel from the fate of her three younger sisters, who in a cruel act of vengeance were forced to become nuns, this despite their youth (they were approximately eleven, nine and seven when they took the veil). It did not save her from being viewed askance – anyone related to Despenser was suspect, and Isabel’s mother, Eleanor de Clare, was held in the Tower while her older brother was under siege at Caerphilly Castle.
In 1330, Edward III took control of his kingdom. Mortimer was executed, Queen Isabella was relegated to the background, and Richard FitzAlan returned to England and petitioned the king for his hereditary lands and income. Edward graciously reinstated Richard as the Earl of Arundel in 1331, and one would assume our hero, by now all of twenty-five or so, would take the opportunity to further populate his nursery – after all, his wife was clearly fertile.
No such attempts seem to have been made. Nor does Richard appear to have been all that interested in his son, little Edmund. Instead, the new Earl of Arundel invested his considerable energies and capabilities in serving his king. A competent leader of men, Arundel proved his worth in war as well as diplomacy, and from 1334 and onwards, one office after the other landed in his lap. Being one of the richer barons in England and blessed with a well-developed sense of business which further increased his wealth, Arundel was also in a position to offer financial services to the king. Such loans did not generate any income – the Church frowned on usury – but they came with other rewards, such as the king’s support in various matters.
Most of the 1330s Richard spent harrying Scotland on behalf of his king. Come the 1340s, and he was instead to be found in France, an active participant at Crécy. In between these martial endeavours, it seems Richard also fallen in love. Unfortunately, not with his wife…
The woman who had caught Richard’s eye was Eleanor of Lancaster. A widow in her mid-twenties, this lady came without the Despenser stigma. She was also the mother of a son, thereby indicating she was fertile. Perfect wife material – or so Richard thought – and it helped that he seems to have been genuinely in love with her. Problem was, Isabel was still alive. Very much so, in fact, and showing no tendencies to helpfully roll over and die anytime soon.
A man as rich as Richard could afford to set his wife up in her own household, far from his. I therefore imagine that Isabel and Richard rarely saw each other, and maybe they were both content to live their separate lives. Isabel may have resented being excluded from the heady life at court – Richard would have had no desire to parade his Despenser wife – but she was financially secure and the mother of Richard’s heir. If her husband preferred the company of other ladies, there was little she could do but pretend not to notice, and at first his infatuation with Eleanor may have appeared as just an illicit little tryst. Soon enough, it became apparent that Richard had other plans for Eleanor.
Eleanor was of royal blood (as was Isabel), her father the grandson of Henry III (Not so sure that is much to brag about, but still…) In the early 1340s, the earl of Lancaster was old – and blind – but he was a powerful magnate and he wasn’t about to tolerate his daughter living in sin, no matter how much she may have loved her paramour. Richard couldn’t agree more.
So, in 1344, Richard FitzAlan petitioned the pope, asking that he annul his marriage to Isabel Despenser. More than twenty years after the wedding, he now admitted to having been coerced into it – both he and his wife had been too young to be able to consent – and that “by force of blows” he’d been forced to cohabit with her. Their son was not the result of a loving union, rather the fruit of an enforced bedding.
“Hmm,” said the pope, raising a sceptical eyebrow. This is when loaning the king all that money came in useful. Edward III added his voice to Richard’s, as did Lancaster, and soon enough the pope produced an annulment – and the dispensation Richard needed to marry Eleanor, seeing as she was Isabel’s first cousin.
Just like that, Isabel was no longer the Countess of Arundel. Instead, she was a woman who’d borne a child out of wedlock – a fallen woman, no less. What she may have thought of all this is unknown, but it doesn’t take all that much imagination to picture just how humiliated she must have felt. Unfortunately for Isabel, she had no powerful male relatives to fight her corner. She had no choice but to accept the settlement offered by Richard – six manors at her disposal for the rest of her life.
As to Isabel’s son, Edmund, the annulment made him illegitimate. The seventeen-year-old who’d grown up believing himself to be the heir to the Arundel and Surrey lands was now a bastard, with little to his name but what his father might deign to give him. Richard must have given Edmund something – as evidenced by the fact that Edmund went on to marry a younger daughter of the Earl of Salisbury – but it was probably a pittance compared to what Edmund had stood to inherit. I guess the father-son relationship never recovered… Actually, occasionally I wonder if there may have been question marks regarding Edmund’s paternity – how else to explain Richard’s callous treatment of his firstborn? Or maybe it was a prerequisite for his marriage to Eleanor, that the son from his first marriage be bastardised so as to ensure it was Eleanor’s children who inherited the titles. Whatever the case, poor Edmund and his mother were out on their ear.
Richard and Eleanor went on to have a long and fruitful marriage. Soon enough, the pitter-patter of small feet echoed over the massive floorboards of Arundel Castle, as first Richard junior, then a further half-dozen of sons and daughters were born. I imagine Richard was content: his career flourished, his wealth increased exponentially – when he died, he was the richest man around – and he had both an heir and a spare. On top of all this, he had his Eleanor. By all accounts, theirs was a loving relationship – as demonstrated by the beautiful – and inspiring, ask Philip Larkin – memorial to them in Chichester Cathedral where they lie, side by side, holding hands through eternity. If we’re going to be precise, though, it’s only their effigies that hold hands – their bodily remains were interred in Lewes Priory.
Isabel never got an effigy. She sort of faded into obscurity. Despite determined efforts, Edmund never succeeded to his father’s wealth and title and died a bitter and angry man. He could, I suppose, comfort himself with that he, in difference to his much younger half-brother, died with his head still attached to his body. Somehow, I don’t think it helped.