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Eleanor de Clare and William la Zouche

 


 

Eleanor de Clare and her second husband, William la Zouche, married some time in January or February of 1329. Their short marital life—William died in 1337, followed a few months later by Eleanor—was an eventful one, to say the least, full of lucre, lockups, and litigation.

Zouche was a particularly unlikely suitor for Eleanor. Not only had Zouche been one of her husband's captors in 1326 (presumably sharing in the large cash reward that had been put on Despenser's head), he went on to besiege Caerphilly Castle, where Eleanor's eighteen-year-old son was holed up, and took his surrender in March or April of 1327. He was one of the men appointed to negotiate the unpopular treaty with the Scots on behalf of Isabella and Mortimer, and when Thomas Wake, a son-in-law and a supporter of Henry, Earl of Lancaster, fell out of favor with the ruling duo, they replaced him with Zouche as constable of the Tower of London.

What brought William and Eleanor together—"Hi, I'm the guy who captured your husband and your son" sounds like the pickup line from hell—is unknown. William did have another connection with Eleanor, though: he was the second husband of Alice, the widow of Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. Warwick was uncle to Hugh le Despenser the younger. As one historian has pointed out, William evidently had a knack for marrying high-born widows. He himself was a younger son who had been one of Warwick's retainers. Zouche was old enough to have fought for Edward I at Falkirk in 1298; his father had died in 1287.

Eleanor de Clare had been a prisoner in the Tower of London since about the time of her husband's capture, but had been released at the end of February 1328. A couple of months later, she was restored to her third of the Clare inheritance—a somewhat surprising act of generosity on the part of Isabella and Mortimer, and a rather puzzling one given the obvious temptations posed by the sudden appearance of a rich, blue-blooded, relatively young, and demonstrably fertile widow on the marriage market. Perhaps Parliament or Eleanor's first cousin, Edward III, had pressed for her release and restoration to her lands; perhaps Isabella and Mortimer planned to marry her off to someone of their own choosing. (Or perhaps Isabella and Mortimer were simply in a good mood at the time.) In any case, Eleanor de Clare's tenure as a free and single woman was to last less than a year.

On January 26, 1329, Edward III ordered that a commission of oyer and terminer hear a complaint by John de Grey of Rotherfield that William la Zouche had abducted Grey's wife and his goods from Hanley Castle. That "wife" was none other than Eleanor de Clare. Sadly, what exactly happened between John de Grey and Eleanor de Clare is unknown, though it's my fond hope that enlightenment awaits somewhere in some long-forgotten Vatican file. Eleanor's biggest attraction for both John and William was presumably her lands, of course, but it's not entirely impossible that lust or love was involved also.

Despite William's status as a loyal supporter, Isabella and Mortimer were none too happy about his "abduction" of Eleanor—a hint, perhaps, that they had had other plans for her? William was promptly stripped of his positions of Tower constable and forest justice, and orders of arrest were issued for him and Eleanor. Meanwhile, for a second time William found himself besieging Caerphilly Castle, presumably because it and Eleanor's other lands had been seized by the crown.

William evidently abandoned his siege, but soon began keeping very strange company for a former Isabella and Mortimer loyalist. In March 1329, and again in July 1329, he and Ingelram Berenger borrowed money from two Londoners. Berenger had been a close associate of Eleanor's executed father-in-law, Hugh le Despenser the elder—so close, in fact, that he was quite lucky to have avoided the noose himself. Meanwhile, Edward II's younger brother, Edmund, Earl of Kent, was doing some plotting himself—to release Edward II, whom he believed to be still alive, from prison. Two of Kent's most active co-conspirators, as evidenced by his written confession in 1330, were none other than Zouche and Berenger.

Eleanor was less lucky than her husband. At some point in 1329, she was arrested in London and once again imprisoned in the Tower. The charge, however, seems to have not been her marriage to Zouche, but her theft of jewels (i.e., plate as well as gems) and florins from the Tower, presumably during her last imprisonment there. (When she stole them, why she stole them, how she stole them, and even if she stole them are mysteries; the few historians who have speculated on the matter think they came from Hugh le Despenser the younger's confiscated goods.) Eleanor was transferred at some point to Devizes Castle, where she remained until December 1329 or January 1330. In exchange for her release, she agreed to give her most valuable lands to the crown, with the proviso that they would be restored in the extremely unlikely event that she paid the crown 50,000 pounds in one day. Perhaps not at all coincidentally, Glamorgan was used in part to satisfy Queen Philippa's endowment when she was crowned at last in 1330, while Tewkesbury and Hanley Castle were given to Queen Isabella as compensation for Pontefract, which Isabella had turned over to Philippa.

On February 22, 1330, William and Eleanor were pardoned. Their stay in the crown's good graces was exceedingly short. In March 1330, the Earl of Kent was executed and his supporters arrested. William was one of those arrested, but he was released on mainprise fairly quickly.

Mortimer's downfall in October 1330 was welcome news to William and Eleanor. William was pardoned for his involvement in the Earl of Kent's plot, and Edward III restored Eleanor's lands to her, though he ordered that she pay a fine of 5,000 pounds for her theft. The order of restoration specifies that it was "made to ease the king's conscience," language that tends to support Eleanor's claim, brought in her petition to have her lands restored, that she had signed them over at Mortimer's demand out of fear for her life. Some historians have claimed that none of the 5,000-pound fine was ever paid, but entries in the Rolls show that Eleanor made installment payments on the fine, though the bulk of it remained unpaid at her death.

John de Grey, meanwhile, seems to have reasserted his claim to Eleanor at about this time, having been unable, as he claimed, to get it heard previously by the Bishop of Lincoln. The case traveled around the papal courts and also resulted in John pulling a knife on William in the presence of Edward III and his council. Edward III, unamused, had both men hauled off to the Tower for a short time. After no less than three appeals to the Pope (one wonders how John was affording this), the case seems to have been decided or dropped sometime after 1333. William ended up with Eleanor, while John married elsewhere and enjoyed a successful career at court and in the military, culminating in his election as a founding Knight of the Garter.

William and Eleanor, meanwhile, had had a son, William, who ended up as a monk at Glastonbury. (William's heir was his son from his marriage to Alice de Tony, while Eleanor's heir was her oldest son, Hugh.) William died in February 1337, Eleanor in June 1337. If Eleanor had indeed been abducted by William, instead of eloping with him, nothing indicates that either was unhappy in the marriage. William made Eleanor his executor, which suggests that he trusted her, and he was buried not in a place connected with his own family but in Tewkesbury Abbey, resting place of Eleanor's Clare ancestors and of her Despenser descendants. (The Lady Chapel, where Zouche was buried, was torn down in the Dissolution, but his effigy was moved to Forthampton Court, evidently by the abbot.) More tellingly, Eleanor immortalized both of her husbands in stained-glass windows at Tewkesbury Abbey, where they both can still be found, Despenser in one window and Zouche in the other, today.

 

eleanor and william

 

Seal of William la Zouche and Eleanor de Clare taken from Seals by Walter de Gray Birch
(Methuen, 1907), available on Google Books)

 

 

 

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