ANNA BELFRAGE

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Elizabeth who? A reflection on the life of a medieval woman

Most of us are destined to pass through this life and be quickly forgotten, buried in the huge drifts of human life that border history. Only those that truly stick out—whether for good or bad—get a moment or two of air-time, and for obvious reasons most of these highlighted people tend to be rulers. And men.

Obviously, there are just as many women as men lurking along the margins of recorded history. Quite a few of those women did play a central part—however indirectly—but they are often consigned to the “irrelevant” section, which seems sort of harsh.

One of those long-gone women about whom we know almost nothing is Elizabeth Ferrers. And yet, to judge from what little we do know, this woman had more than her fair share of loss and grief in her life.

Elizabeth was the youngest child of William de Ferrers, the powerful and respected Earl of Derby. This was a man with a surfeit of daughters. Two marriages left him with ten girls and only two sons. Not that Elizabeth ever had the opportunity of developing a close relationship with her father—he died when she was still very young.

Elizabeth was married while still relatively young to William Marshal. (Not the William Marshal but a rather more obscure relative) That marriage ended when her husband died at The Battle of Evesham. Some while later, Elizabeth Ferrers was wed to Dafydd ap Gruffudd.

Was this her choice? Likely not. At the time, Dafydd was estranged from his brother, Llewellyn ap Gruffudd. Well, if we’re going to be quite correct, he’d been his usual pain in the arse, trying to capitalise on the general unrest that followed upon the collapse of Montfort’s control over England. Llewellyn had been a close ally of Montfort. Dafydd chose to present himself as a loyal supporter of the English king, Henry III, and his son, the future Edward I.

Edward Gal_nations_edward_i

Edward I

So there was Dafydd, kicking his heels at the English court while longing for the green valleys of home. Maybe the English king hoped to tie the younger of the Welsh princes to him by offering him an English bride. Or maybe his decision to marry Elizabeth to Dafydd was a reflection on just how pissed off he was with Elizabeth’s brother, Robert de Ferrers. The young Earl of Derby had sided firmly with Montfort, apparently due to a personal dislike of Prince Edward. In the aftermath of Evesham, Ferrers stubbornly refused to come to terms with his king—at least initially. (In general, Robert’s life reads like a text book case of “how to totally destroy your inheritance”. Due to his own behaviour, Robert de Ferrers lost his title, most of his lands and any political clout he could have had. I may have to give him his very own post—but I can’t say I like him much)

Dafydd was probably ten years or so older than Elizabeth. Yes, he was Welsh, but he’d have been taught to speak Anglo-Norman French and had, after many years at the English court, probably acquired a veneer of civilisation (from the perspective of an Englishman. From the perspective of a Welshman no such veneer was required, thank you very much).

medieval lustWhether Elizabeth liked her husband yes or no was neither here nor there. She was his wife and would have no choice but to accompany him through the ups and downs of his life. Seeing as Dafydd comes across as a somewhat volatile character, prone to stirring up the hornets’ nest whenever he felt unjustly treated, Elizabeth was in for quite the ride.

Dafydd made his peace with his brother in 1267—briefly. When Edward, now king of England, and Llewellyn faced off yet again in 1274, Dafydd happily joined Edward’s side, resenting the fact that his brother wouldn’t grant him as much land as Dafydd felt entitled to. What Elizabeth may have thought of all this is unknown, but when Dafydd was in one of his “I love you, my brother” phase, Elizabeth was likely in Wales, when he was in a “I love you better, my liege” phase, she’d be tagging along to England. After all, where he went, there went she, responsible for ensuring his household worked as it should.

Llewellyn’s attempts to retain his hold on all of Wales failed. Well, to be honest his hold had never been all that strong: to the south and east the English Marcher lords held sway and the other Welsh princelings weren’t always that thrilled at recognising the House of Gwynedd as the first among the Welsh royal dynasties. When Edward assembled a huge host and managed to deprive Llewellyn of the harvests on Anglesey, Llewellyn had no choice but to parley and the Treaty of Aberconwy in 1277 was an excruciatingly humiliating document whereby Llewellyn’s power base was substantially reduced to comprise the lands west of River Conwy.

medieval-dragon-e1492962219524-570x299Dafydd, however, was a happy camper as the treaty called for Llewellyn to hand over the land he’d held east of the river to his younger brother. Edward was an even happier camper as he had a) made his point b) effectively collared the Welsh dragon. So pleased was Edward that he could even be magnanimous and preside over Llewellyn’s much delayed wedding to Eleanor de Montfort. (Delayed because Edward had kidnapped the bride, one should add)

medieval midwife-history-medievalBy the year 1277, Elizabeth and Dafydd had been married for over a decade. There were two surviving sons that we know of, yet another Llewellyn and an Owain. The eldest would have been around ten, the youngest a toddler. Likely there had been other childbirths, but if so no records survive. Other than the boys, the Dafydd/Elizabeth household also included a number of girls, but these seem to have been Dafydd’s daughters by women other than his wife. Difficult to handle, I imagine. Unless Elizabeth disliked sharing her bed with her husband beyond the dutiful embraces required to conceive an heir and a spare. Alternatively, one or two of those girls were, in fact, Elizabeth’s daughters as well. Given future events, it seems a bit unlikely as Elizabeth’s youngest child, a daughter named Gwladys, is named in documents while the rest remain anonymous.

Anyway: 1277 and Dafydd had at last come into his own. It didn’t take him long to realise just how hard Llewellyn’s life had been, always threatened by the encroaching presence of the English who, by now, had settled themselves all around Gwynedd. Edward was busy building castles along the approaches to Gwynedd—magnificent things that sent a very loud message as to who was the real power in Wales. Llewellyn might retain his title of Prince of Wales, but it was Edward Plantagenet whose writ ran strongest.

Inevitably, Dafydd ended up in yet another conflict. This time, however, he directed his anger at Edward and the king’s determination to implement English law in those areas of Wales he controlled. Plus Dafydd probably felt he’d deserved more than the two measly cantrefs he’d received at the Treaty of Aberconwy. He managed to rope in several other dissatisfied Welsh princes, men who had a long last come to realise that in making their peace with Edward of England they’d betrayed their own nation, culture and heritage. While Llewellyn probably cursed his brother to hell and back privately, he had no option but to join. Besides, for a couple of months a Welsh victory did not seem entirely impossible. Until Edward got his war machine moving, of course.

On the one hand, Edward was incensed by Dafydd’s betrayal. One must remember that Edward had seen first hand just how dangerous a powerful and rebellious subject could be—witness Simon de Montfort vs Henry III, Edward’s father. On the other, Edward probably high-fived his closest friends and said “YES!”. Dafydd had handed him the excuse Edward needed to once and for all crush all Welsh resistance.

What did Elizabeth do in all this? Me, I think she was afraid. All the time. She knew Edward and realised he made an implacable foe. She must have understood that if this went wrong, Dafydd would not remain alive for that much longer. And if Dafydd wasn’t around, what would happen to her sons? To her?

We all know this ended badly for the Welsh. A devastated Llewellyn lost his wife in childbirth in the summer of 1282 and was then likely tricked into a trap masterminded by certain Marcher lords, among them Edmund Mortimer, father of the Roger Mortimer who’d go on to rebel against a king, force through the king’s abdication, live joined at the hips with said king’s wife and then die for all that hubris. Neither here nor there. Llewellyn died in December of 1282, his head presented to Edward by Roger Mortimer (Edmund’s brother).

For some months, Dafydd was Prince of Wales—months spent mostly on the run with his family. Elizabeth and the children travelled with him from one castle to the other, and all the while Edward was tightening the noose around his most hated traitor.

EHFA BNMsFr2643FroissartFol97vExecHughDespenser

This is Hugh Despenser being hanged, drawn & quartered. Dafydd underwent a similar ordeal

It all came to an end in the summer of 1283. Dafydd was captured together with his wife, his youngest son and all those girls. Neither Dafydd nor Elizabeth would have held any illusions about what awaited Dafydd: death. But I guess none of them expected he would be put to death in such a cruel manner. Dafydd ap Gruffydd has the doubtful distinction of being the first person of noble birth to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

What neither of them could have known is how ruthless Edward would be towards their children. Once Edward’s men captured their eldest son, Llewellyn, he then arranged for both boys—at the time fourteen and eight or so—to be taken to Bristol Castle, there to be locked up for the rest of their lives.

And as to Gwladus, she was taken from her mother and sent to a Gilbertine convent in Lancashire. She would live and die as a nun, far from her mother, her homeland. Her cousin, Llewelyn’s daughter, was likewise dispatched to a convent—but a different one.

So there was Elizabeth. Not only had she just been widowed (or would be, very shortly) but she’d just had all of her children torn from her. No matter that Gwladus was probably a babe, that little Owain was still a child with downy cheeks and knobbly knees, they were taken from her. Did she beg, did she plead? Well, what mother wouldn’t? So yes, I think she did. But it did not avail her. Edward Plantagenet intended to erase this Welsh dynasty from the face of the earth.

In the aftermath of her husband’s rebellion, Elizabeth lost it all. Husband, sons, daughter(s). She would never see any of her children again and as to her own fate, well, she’d had her moment in the limelight, hadn’t she? With Dafydd dead and her sons locked away, Elizabeth became irrelevant. We don’t know what happened to her. It’s as if her life stopped in 1283. I suppose that she would have agreed. To lose it all like that must leave a person permanently maimed.

medieval marriage frontpage2Some have put forward the theory that Elizabeth was hastily wed to another man. If so, we don’t know to whom or if she became the mother of other children. Some say she retired to Wales and was buried there several years later. Me, I think she grieved for the rest of her life. I sort of hope she died before her eldest son in 1287, but God does not seem to have been kind to Elizabeth, so likely she didn’t. I hope she never found out about the king’s order that her sons be kept in fortified cages at night. But life being as it is, I suspect someone made sure to tell her.

Well over eight hundred years ago, Elizabeth Ferrers was born. We know so little about her. What did she look like, how did her laughter sound? Did she laugh or was she mostly of a serious disposition? Was she passionate or cold, did she have someone to comfort her when she wept for the life she had lost, the future her children were robbed of? We don’t know. But it takes a person seriously lacking in empathy not to be affected by the tragedies that befell her—and her children.

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8 thoughts on “Elizabeth who? A reflection on the life of a medieval woman

  1. jessiecahalin on said:

    Such a poignant message about lost history of women. Where is ‘herstory’?

  2. A marvellous post beautifully written. So, so sad.

  3. What a tragic end. You have turned the few facts of her life into an engaging story. Enjoyed reading it and learned a lot.

  4. Darlene Davis on said:

    I’ve run across mentions of Elizabeth in some of my prior reading, but only as Daffyd’s wife. She did not become real to me until I read your post. Thank you.

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