Elizabeth Comyn and the Despensers Pt1

Finally…. After a baptism of fire, teenage birthday parties (that lasted a week!), housework and tax returns, not to mention having to rewrite everything I thought I had right (and didn’t), here is my maiden non-fiction post on this blog! Part 1 just deals with the background, really. Part 2 will really get into some nitty-gritty exploration of what we know about Elizabeth Comyn as well as some speculatory theories on why things happened as they did.

If I have missed anything vital or just got it completely wrong, please let me know. I plead my case of being a creative writer rather than historian!


The Pembroke Inheritance and the Strange Tale of Elizabeth Comyn

Part 1

Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, died suddenly on 23rd June 1324 at Compiègne in France, leaving a large inheritance of land and estates. Ideally, these should have gone to a son or a brother, but unfortunately he died without issue and all of his brothers had also previously perished. This meant that the vast Pembroke estates passed instead to the children of his two sisters, Joan and Isabella de Valence. To look at their claims it is probably easier (and less mind-boggling!) to examine them one by one:

Elizabeth Comyn was the daughter of Joan de Valence and an extremely important Scottish noble called John Comyn (also called the Red Comyn for some reason – his father was called the Black Comyn). Alianore has done a brilliant piece on Elizabeth’s ancestry and Scottish connections here so I will try and summarise it briefly for the purposes of this piece. The Red Comyn was the Lord of Badenoch and part of the Comyn Clan, a family that were at the centre of Scottish politics. The uncle of Red Comyn was John Balliol, Scotland’s king from 1292 to July 1296 when he was forced to abdicate by Edward I and taken prisoner. This caused a great deal of political unrest in Scotland between those who were still loyal to Balliol (such as the Red Comyn and William Wallace) and those who sought to claim the Scottish throne for themselves (Robert the Bruce). The Bruces and the Comyns were traditional enemies, but John Comyn agreed to meet with Bruce in Greyfriars Kirk on 10th February 1306. What they met to discuss and what exactly happened is not known, but the Red Comyn was assassinated, probably by Bruce himself, who then took the throne.

Joan de Valence and her children, John, Elizabeth and Joan, fled back to the safety of England. This was not just because of being family, but also because, through their bloodline, they probably had a better claim on the throne than Bruce himself. As Alianore says: ‘By the rule of primogeniture, the Red Comyn had a better claim to the throne of Scotland than Robert Bruce, which he passed onto his children. (The Comyns/Balliols were descended from the eldest daughter of David of Scotland, Earl of Huntingdon, while the Bruces descended from the second daughter).’ By the way, if you’re wondering why all this Scottish stuff is important, hopefully it will become clearer in Part 2!

Back in England, the children grew up in safety, but John was killed at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, fighting for Edward II against Bruce, his father’s murderer. By this time he had married Margaret Wake and had a son named Aymer. Unfortunately the little lad died in 1316 and Margaret later remarried Edmund of Woodstock, 1st Earl of Kent (and half-brother to Edward II).

Joan, the eldest daughter (probably born about 1295 but we can’t be sure exactly when), married David Strathbogie, the Earl of Atholl, who was loyal to Edward II, despite his father having been in opposition to Edward I (for which he was executed). There are mentions of them having two children: David, the eldest (1308-1335) and Adomar (d. 1402). Joan and David both died in 1326, just after Edward was deposed.

Elizabeth was the youngest Comyn daughter, having been born on 1st November 1299. There is nothing heard of her until the Pembroke inheritance issue. At this point, she is to be found living at Kennington, one of the manors of Hugh Despenser the Elder. This alone seems odd, but what is more unusual is that, in 1324 she was around 25 years of age and unmarried. For such an heiress this seems to be a strange state of affairs and one that I shall go into more in Part 2 (when all this preparatory explanation is out of the way!).

The other Pembroke sister, Isabella, was married to John de Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings. They had a son – another John de Hastings: 2nd Baron Hastings and Baron of Abergavenny, The elder Hastings, after losing his first wife, took as a second wife Isabella, the widow of Gilbert de Clare and daughter of Hugh Despenser the elder (with me so far?) and had three more children with her despite the huge age gap. John the elder also seemed to be a close colleague of Despenser’s from the 1290s until his death in 1313. It is very easy to get mixed up between all the Johns and Isabellas, and even Natalie Fryde, in The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II 1321-1326 gets confused by claiming the junior John de Hasting’s son by Juliana Leybourne, Laurence, is actually the son of Isabella de Valence and therefore the elder Despenser’s grandson. This is not so.

After Pembroke’s death, the Despensers seemed to fall out with the younger John de Hastings, forcing him into the recogizance of a huge sum of £4000. Upon the death of de Hastings in January 1325, his son Lawrence was just 5 years old and a minor. His wardship was awarded to the elder Despenser. However, there is nothing too sinister in this as Lawrence’s mother, Juliana de Leyburne, seemed to be on good terms with both Edward and the Despensers. Edward gave her the freedom to marry to marry her second husband Thomas Blount ‘if she pleases’, a rare thing in a time when women of status usually had their husbands chosen for them. Also, Juliana was a very rich woman in her own right and, despite being a widow, her lands were left alone by the Despensers. There is more about this on Alianore’s blog here. I have also found a few references in British History Online (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=41919) about his manors and lands being held for him by the King.

The other beneficiary of Pembroke’s death was his widow, Marie de St Pol (or Châtillon), whom he married in 1321 (not in 1324 on the day he died as some stories claim). She had, as some of her dower, Pembroke lands in south Wales, an area into which Hugh the younger was seeking to expand his influence. Aided by the King and various tame officials, the Despensers managed to divest her of certain estates as well as sell off cattle and livestock for well under their going rate. According to Natalie Fryde, the Countess was left almost penniless.

Hopefully this post has given an idea of some of the background of the story of the Despensers and Elizabeth Comyn. In Part 2 I will look at some of the accusations against the Despensers with their land-grabbing ideas and will try, in part, to present a case for the defence m’Lud.

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About Jules Frusher

With an MA in Creative and Critical Writing, I am passionate about the written word. The other great loves of my life are all things Medieval (especially Hugh le Despenser the Younger) and animal behaviour (especially canids and corvids). Give me a castle in the wilderness (with Broadband!) and I'll be happy!
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