As today is the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, I thought I’d pay tribute to a man who bravely, yet foolishly lost his life on the battlefield, and whose death paved the way for Hugh Despenser’s rise to power.
Gilbert de Clare was born on 10th May 1291, the only son and heir of Gilbert (the Red) de Clare, seventh earl of Gloucester, and Joan of Acre, the daughter of Edward I. He had two elder half sisters by his father’s first marriage: Isabel and Joan (disinherited) as well as three full sisters – Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth. Gilbert the Red died when he was four, although his mother soon remarried Ralph de Monthermer, a squire in his father’s household.
As was the custom, when Gilbert reached a certain age, in this case, 8, he was sent away to another household to start his training as a squire. The household in question was that of his step-grandmother, Queen Margaret. To this end it should be noted that ‘our’ Gilbert was not the same as the Gilbert de Clare often mentioned as a boyhood companion of Edward II – that was his cousin, the son of Thomas de Clare of Thomand who was in fact a good ten years older.
Gilbert’s mother Joan died in April 1307 and a few months later, after Edward I’s death and the accession of Edward II, he was granted his inheritance – the vast de Clare estates and the title of the earl of Gloucester and Hertford (Monthermer forfeited the title himself upon his wife’s death). He was only 16.
However, despite his youth it seems that Gilbert proved himself to be a worthy heir to the de Clare name, especially in the on-going conflict against Scotland. In 1308-9 he was appointed the Warden of Scotland, going on to be the Captain of Scotland and the northern marches later that year.
He would probably have been happy just concentrating his efforts on Robert the Bruce, but continuing problems at court also required his attention, namely the crises generated by the presence of Piers de Gaveston, Edward’s favourite. In many ways, Gaveston put Gilbert in an awkward position as he was married to Gilbert’s sister, Margaret. Nevertheless, de Clare soon found himself siding with the Lords Ordainers, agreeing to Gaveston’s exile in both 1308 and 1311. Even so, it appears that Gilbert was not one of the more radical earls and after Gaveston’s kidnap and murder in 1312, he reconciled himself with the king.
From that moment, de Clare’s role was mainly that of the moderate, the peacemaker between the warring parties of Edward and the earl of Lancaster. It seems that both sides trusted him and valued his counsel. Indeed, he was trusted so much that Edward made him custos (guardian of the realm) twice: in 1311 (while Edward was in Scotland) and again in 1313 when Edward went to France. His experience in mediating between two difficult and stubborn parties was probably also an advantage when he was sent to France in February 1314 to negotiate over Gascony on behalf of the king.
But, once more, attention was turning north, to Scotland, where Robert the Bruce was creating huge problems for Edward. Gilbert was recalled and summoned to Berwick on Tweed with his men, most likely relieved to be back in his old field of operations. Edward’s first objective was to relieve Stirling Castle, held under siege by Edward the Bruce for almost a year. By 23rd June 1314, they had almost reached their objective – de Clare and the earl of Hereford had joint command of the vanguard – when they encountered the Scottish forces in small skirmishes. It was during these that Henry de Bohun, Hereford’s nephew was killed while attempting to take down Robert the Bruce himself. In another encounter, de Clare was unhorsed and Robert de Clifford, an experienced soldier, was repulsed by the earl of Moray and the Black Douglas.
That night, in the English camp, feelings were running high, not only from the unexpected losses, but also from exhaustion and fear that the Scots would attack under cover of darkness. The next morning, several of the more experienced commanders counselled Edward that it would be better not to fight that day but to let the men rest instead. Foremost of these voices was de Clare. However Edward was not prepared to listen and, in anger, turned to Gilbert and accused him of deceit and treachery. According to the Vita, Gilbert is said to have relied: ‘Today, it will be clear that I am neither a traitor nor a liar,’ before preparing himself for the coming battle.
He did not have to wait long. As Edward’s forces lined up facing north, towards Stirling Castle, the Scots appeared. Only they did not appear in front of them, as Edward probably expected them to, but from the west, out of the woods. The English army was completely unprepared for a Scottish attack on their flank (in fact, they couldn’t even have been sure that the Scots would meet them in the open field as they tended against such tactics). All Edward’s men could do was to turn to meet their foe, thus throwing into disarray any order they had formed and placing the archers in the way of the cavalry.
Still smarting from Edward’s rebuke, de Clare immediately took the initiative and led a charge towards Bruce’s battalions of schiltroms, his speed outstripping that of his companions. Unfortunately in his rush to glory, he had forgotten to wear his surcoat with its coat of arms identifying who he was. If he had, then it is most likely that he would have survived and been captured for a handsome ransom. But in the event, with the Scots unaware of their attacker’s importance, he was unhorsed and killed.
His bravery cannot be doubted, but neither can the fact that his sacrifice was not only unnecessary, but in vain. The English cavalry never stood a chance against Bruce’s schiltrom formations, and the archers who might have changed the course of the battle were first of all hindered by their own cavalry from a clear field of fire, and then, unprotected, were massacred by the Scots’ small band of horsemen led by sir Robert Keith. Soon, with defeat looking inevitable, Edward was led from the battlefield and the rest of the English forces also quit the field and fled. If they were lucky they also lived to see another day.
Not so Gilbert de Clare. His was the most prominent name among the dead on the field of Stirling Carse, and his loss was not only a loss to his family and friends but also for English politics. A much-needed and respected voice of moderation had gone forever from Edward’s court.
On hearing of the earl of Gloucester’s death, Bruce was also greatly saddened. Apart from the loss of a large ransom, Bruce was also de Clare’s cousin and had great respect for the young man. He had Gilbert’s body carried to a local church where he himself maintained a night-time vigil over the corpse. He then had Gilbert’s body returned to England at his own expense to be buried with his ancestors before the altar in Tewkesbury Abbey.
Although Gilbert had been married to Matilda de Burgh, daughter of the earl of Ulster, for many years, the union had been childless (despite the Flores Historiarum – a reliably unreliable chronicle – stating that they did produce a son, John who was born and died in 1312). In normal circumstances, this would have led to a partition of the de Clare inheritance between the three full sisters, however Matilda rather conveniently announced at that moment that she was pregnant. This meant that nothing could be done until she’d been delivered – just in case a male heir was forthcoming. It wasn’t. In fact, nothing was forthcoming any time soon. The pregnancy continued for a miraculous three years until parliament finally came to their senses and realised that there probably wasn’t going to be any baby! In 1317, the lands were finally divided – with the largest portion going to the eldest sister Eleanor, and thus into the hands of her husband Hugh Despenser. And thus started his rise to power.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online
The Vita Edwardi Secundi The Battle of Bannockburn – Aryeh Nusbacher
Bannockburn 1314 – Pete Armstrong