So who are the de Clare family from yesterday’s post who seemed to be loitering in the New Forest when William Rufus met his end? Complicated – that’s what rather than who. Richard son of Gilbert arrived with the Conquest. Gilbert was a son of the Count of Brionne. Gilbert was actually one of Duke William’s guardians during his childhood and was killed in a bid to control William. Richard fled Normandy along with his brother only returning when Duke William was able to control the duchy. He was also one of Duke William’s extended family (Gilbert’s father was one of Duke Richard of Normandy’s illegitimate sons).
Richard Fitz Gilbert was with the Conqueror in 1066 and did rather nicely from the whole affair, acquiring more than 170 holdings including Tonbridge in Kent and Clare in Suffolk. The Domesday Book identifies him as a very wealthy man indeed. Not only rich but trusted by William who left him in England with the justicar role while he returned to Normandy in 1073. It was in this capacity that Richard helped to suppress the so-called Earls Rebellion in 1075.
Whilst more of Tonbridge Castle stands today than the castle at Clare in Suffolk, it was at Clare that the family chose to make their administrative seat- hence the de Clare element of the name. All that remains today of the castle is the motte – the mound of earth on which the wooden keep once stood. It must have been an impressive sight given that the motte is over 60ft tall today and can be something of a surprise to a casual visitor to the town. In the thirteenth century the wooden keep was replaced with a stone shell keep structure.
Rather interestingly, after William the Conqueror died Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare (to give him his full name) was one of the Norman lords who rebelled against William Rufus in favour of Rufus’s older brother Robert Curthose. He died in 1090 having retired to the priory at St Neot’s in 1088. He and his wife had re-founded the priory in the years after the Conquest and it should be noted that the de Clares were important monastic patrons wherever they held land.
Despite his retirement from worldly affairs Richard de Clare left a tribe of powerful sons. There were at least six of them as well as two daughters, not to mention a wife, Rohese Gifford, who owned land in her own right. The de Clare family were well placed for power – they were related to the ruling house and were extremely wealthy. They were marriageable and therefore families sought alliances with the de Clares – which meant it wasn’t long before they were related to most of the other powerful Anglo-Norman families in the country adding to their political power.
Roger, the eldest son, inherited the Norman de Clare land. Gilbert who was the second of the de Clare sons inherited the English estates. In 1088 Gilbert and his brother Roger rebelled against William Rufus at Tonbridge. William promptly turned the motte and bailey castle into rubble – let’s not forget it was a wooden structure at the time. Gilbert and Roger were captured. Interestingly the family despite having rebelled against the king; being suspected of being involved with Bishop Odo’s conspiracies in 1083; and were undoubtedly part of Robert de Mowbray’s conspiracies against William Rufus, kept hold of their lands.
Gilbert turns up in William Rufus’s army fighting the Scots. The de Clare brothers appear at William’s side as part of the hunting party in August 1100 when he was killed. Had it been an ordinary hunting party it would have been evidence that the de Clares were reconciled with William but since William suffered his rather nasty accident it is almost inevitable that historians point out the earlier hostility as circumstantial evidence of a conspiracy. In 1101 Gilbert was at court with Henry I. It could all be perfectly innocent but there are rather a lot of coincidences – sadly all without the necessary documentary evidence to suggest conspiracy.
Gilbert remained hugely wealthy and influential. He founded Cardigan Priory having been given the area around Cardigan by Henry I (no thought was given to what the local population might think- essential you have the land providing you can keep hold of it!). Gilbert did secure Cardigan and Aberystwyth. It is almost impossible to write about Welsh Castles without mentioning the de Clare family.
Brother Robert, another of the hunting party was the Baron of Little Dunmow and steward to Henry I. Walter de Clare would found Tintern Abbey. He was a marcher lord in South Wales having been granted land by Henry I near Chepstow.
Between the brothers there were many children ensuring that de Clares married into important families, acquired land and a name for themselves but that’s an entirely different story which should include Richard de Clare, the Earl of Pembroke better known to History as “Strongbow.” His daughter married William Marshal. The two families would intermarry thereafter. The Earls of Gloucester were de Clares and stood surety for the Magna Carta. Eventually the de Clares would marry back into the royal family with the 7thEarl of Gloucester – another Gilbert de Clare- marrying Joan of Acre, the daughter of Edward I ensuring that the family were knee deep in the Scottish Wars of Independence and Edward II’s familial difficulties over the Despensers. This must have caused some head scratching as Hugh Despenser the Younger’s wife, Eleanor, was another member of the de Clare family.
Eleanor was the 8thearl’s sister. She and her two other sisters became co-heiresses after the 8thearl died at Bannockburn. She was sent to the Tower when Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer deposed Edward II. Three of her daughters were forced to become nuns at that time. Eleanor’s story is a complicated and cruel one – she escaped only by signing over most of her de Clare inheritance to the Crown. It was only when Edward III took control of his throne that Eleanor was able to regain her lands (she’s going to get a longer post another day.)
Whilst we’re at it let’s not forget Walter Tyrel the man who is supposed to have shot William Rufus – he was Richard de Clare’s son-in-law. All of which brings us back to the starting point – was William Rufus’s death an accident? Yes – it still might have been but when you start to look at the de Clare family and their previous relationship with William you do have to wonder.
And before I forget Gilbert Fitz Richard’s son was also called Gilbert. His wife was Isabel de Beaumont. The Beaumont family had also fought at the Battle of Hastings but more important to this post is the co-incidence that Isabel was a mistress of Henry I – what a tangled web.