Eleanor de Clare was the eldest of Gilbert de Clare 7th Earl of Gloucester’s three daughters. She was also the eldest granddaughter of Edward I, her mother being Joan of Acre. You would think under those circumstances that her marriage would have been fairly auspicious. Unfortunately her royal grandfather owed a Marcher Lord 2,000 livres. Eleanor was what you might describe as “settlement of the debt” that Edward I owed to Hugh Despenser the Older. Her wedding to Hugh Despenser the Younger took place in 1306. It included a dowry that settled an annual income on Eleanor. She was thirteen years old. The Despensers were an old family but they were somewhat cash strapped. Eleanor gave their family added prestige, took them a step closer to court and there was also the promise of future patronage.
When Edward II became king in 1307 it appears that Eleanor’s fortunes looked up. There is evidence of land settlement and in 1308 she appears as a lady-in-waiting to Edward’s new queen, Isabella of France. Not only that but her young uncle paid for her place at court. At around this time Eleanor’s sisters were also married off. Margaret found herself married to the king’s favourite Piers Gaveston. Meanwhile Eleanor was producing a family. By 1325 she had nine children.
In 1314 the family’s fortunes changed with the death of Eleanor’s brother Gilbert. For the next three years they waited for Gilbert’s wife Matilda to give birth. She insisted that she was pregnant throughout. Eventually though the three sisters, Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth were declared co-heiresses. Glamorgan fell into Hugh Despencer’s lap and his power at court increased accordingly when Eleanor was named sub jure Lady Glamorgan. Unfortunately he was land and power greedy. A Welsh land dispute with Roger Mortimer ended in the imprisonment of Roger and his uncle in the Tower not to mention a nationwide reputation that eventually resulted in Edward II’s wife Isabella taking the opportunity to flee to France with her eldest son Prince Edward.
Hugh tricked his sister-in-law Elizabeth out of some of her inheritance – the Welsh lands of Usk. Elizabeth was captured by her brother-in-law and sent to Barking Abbey. Her husband died and then Edward II “persuaded” her to swap Usk for Despencer’s lands in the Gower. She only got her property back in 1326 when Isabella of France and her lover, Roger Mortimer (who escaped the Tower and went to France) invaded in the name of Prince Edward.
It would have to be said that the whole family situation of the de Clare girls looks rather fraught given the land grabbing tendencies of Hugh and the fact that he and Piers Gaveston were both Edward II’s favourites. Historians are conflicted as to the extent of the relationships but it must have made life difficult and if it wasn’t then the arrival of Isabella in 1326 from France with an army at her back certainly made life very difficult for Eleanor.
The Despencers were captured. Eleanor’s father-in-law was hanged whilst her husband was put on trial and brutally executed on the 24 November 1326 in Hereford. As the wheel of fortune turned up for Elizabeth it turned down for her sister. Eleanor was carted off to the Tower and three of her daughters were forced to become nuns. Even more cruel they weren’t even sent to the same nunnery. Margaret Despencer who was probably a toddler at the time was sent to Watton. Her sister Eleanor went to Sempringham and the third daughter, Joan, was sent to Shaftesbury. This was perhaps revenge for the fact that Edward II had sent three of Roger Mortimer’s daughters to live as nuns in 1324. However, the Mortimer girls hadn’t been forcibly veiled whereas the Despencer sisters, even the toddler, would only ever know the world of the nunnery.
Eleanor de Clare remained the Tower for two years with her youngest children.. When Eleanor was eventually released her dower lands were restored to her making her a rich widow. She was promptly abducted from Hanley Castle by William de la Zouche who had participated in the Siege of Caerphilly Castle which had seen the capture of her first husband. She was promptly re-arrested and thrown back into the Tower on charges of jewellery theft. Her lands were confiscated and she was told that she would have to pay a fine of £50,000 to get them back.
Interestingly when Edward III toppled Roger Mortimer in 1330 Eleanor did not petition for an annulment of her “forced” marriage. The fine for the return of her lands was dropped to £5,000 and it still wasn’t paid when she died.
You’d have thought that would have been sufficient drama for any woman but even after 1330 she wasn’t allowed any peace. A knight called Sir John Grey claimed that he had married her before de la Zouche arrived on the scene. Edward III and the Pope rejected Grey’s evidence -though we don’t know what it was as it has disappeared from the record.
The image of the naked lady with no clothes on, to be found in one of the windows of Tewkesbury Abbey (where she’s buried), is thought to be Eleanor.
Eleanor died on the 30 June 1337.