Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Medieval Love Story: Ralph de Monthermer and Joan of Acre

One of the more unlikely romances in the late thirteenth century was that between Joan of Acre, daughter of King Edward I, and Ralph de Monthermer, son of the Lord Knows Who. For Ralph, a squire in Joan's household, was of such obscure origins that his parentage is unknown.

Joan of Acre (whose daughter Eleanor de Clare is the heroine of my first novel, The Traitor's Wife) was born in 1272 in Acre, or Akko, in what is now Israel. Her parents, Eleanor of Castile and the future Edward I, had gone there on crusade. Joan was soon sent to her maternal grandmother in Castile, where she remained until 1278. Her father, now King of England, had plans to marry her to Hartman, son of the King of the Romans, but the young man died in a shipwreck in 1282 before the couple could marry. Undaunted, Edward I soon began searching around for another suitable husband. Soon he lit on one: Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, probably the most powerful baron in England at the time and one whose relations with the king had long been stormy. Gilbert had the disadvantage of already having a wife, Alice de Lusignan, but the couple had long been estranged, and in 1285, the marriage was annulled. In 1290, after drawn-out negotiations and the obtaining of a papal dispensation, eighteen-year-old Joan was finally married to forty-six-year-old Gilbert. Before Gilbert's death in December 1295, the couple efficiently produced four children: Gilbert, Eleanor, Margaret, and Elizabeth.

Joan has taken hard knocks at the hands of both historians and novelists. Mary Anne Everett Green in her Lives of the Princesses of England characterizes her as a neglectful mother and a "giddy princess," and other Victorian-era historians, along with many novelists, have acquiesced in this judgment. There seems to be little evidence to support the charges of neglect; though Edward I did arrange for Joan's son Gilbert to live at court when he was seven, this was hardly an atypical arrangement for a noble boy who was also the king's grandson, and children of this social class often were separated from their parents for long periods. As for Joan's giddiness, Michael Altschul has commented on the "marked ability" with which Joan controlled the Clare lands after Gilbert's death.

What can be said about Joan, however, was that she had spirit and willfulness. During her parents' absence in Gascony, when Joan was in her early teens, she became involved in a dispute with the treasurer of her household and refused to accept money from him; her father had to pay her debts when he returned to England. After her marriage, she left court to be alone with her new husband at his manors, to the displeasure of her father, who in reprisal seized seven robes that had been made for her.

Among the squires in Gilbert de Clare's vast household was one Ralph de Monthermer. Nothing is known of his background, but he soon caught the eye of his widowed mistress, who sent him to her father to be knighted. Sometime at the beginning of 1297, the couple were secretly married.

Edward I, cheerfully ignorant of this match, had meanwhile been searching around for another husband for his daughter, and it is safe to say that Monthermer was not on the king's shortlist. The king's words when he heard the rumors about his daughter's attraction to her squire are unrecorded, and in any case are probably best left to the imagination. He seized Joan's estates and formally announced his daughter's betrothal to the Count of Savoy in March 1297. Joan, however, had become "conscious that she was in a situation which would render the disclosure of her marriage inevitable," as Green delicately puts it, and she apparently broke the news of the marriage to her father, who promptly clapped Monthermer into prison at Bristol Castle.

Either before informing her father of her marriage or after Monthermer had been put into prison--the accounts vary--Joan sent her little daughters to visit their grandfather the king in hopes that they would soften his mood. Evidently, though, more was needed than just the youthful antics of the three Clare sisters. After a great deal of discussion at court about the matter, Joan, as the chronicles report, was at last allowed to plead for herself before her father, at which time she is said to have told the king that as it was no disgrace for an earl to marry a poor woman, it was not blameworthy for a countess to advance a capable young man. This defense is said to have pleased Edward I, though it is probable that Joan's pregnancy, which would have been visible at the time of this exchange in July 1297, also convinced the king to accept the situation. He restored most of Joan's lands to her and pardoned Monthermer, who from November 1297 onward was referred to as the Earl of Gloucester. In the meantime, the couple's first child, named Mary, had been born. She was followed by three others: Thomas, Edward, and Joan.

Ralph soon found himself busy fighting Scots for his new father-in-law, which brought him quickly into favor with the king. In 1301, Edward I restored Tonbridge and Portland to Ralph and Joan in consideration of Ralph's good services in Scotland. Ralph also was on cordial terms with young Prince Edward, who frequently wrote to him. Joan too was friendly with her much younger brother Edward, even offering him her seal when Edward was estranged from his father.

On April 23, 1307, Joan of Acre died. Some Internet sources claim that she died in childbirth--unfortunately, hardly an implausible scenario--but none that I have seen mention a source for this information. Neither Green, Altschul, nor Frances Underwood specify a cause for her death. She was only thirty-five. Ralph was probably not present, being engaged in Scotland at the time. Joan was buried at the priory of Clare in Suffolk. According to Underwood, Osbern Bokenham, a friar there, relayed the odd story that in 1359, Elizabeth de Burgh, Joan's last surviving Clare daughter, inspected her mother's body and found the corpse to be intact. Bokenham also reported that miracles were said to occur at Joan's tomb, including the healing of toothache, back pain, and fever.

Edward I, who ordered that masses be said for his daughter, was himself in poor health; he died in July 1307. Having been styled an earl in right of his wife, Ralph lost his title shortly after her death; Joan and Gilbert de Clare's son, another Gilbert, became the next Earl of Gloucester. The new king, Edward II, granted Ralph five thousand marks for his surrender of the Clare lands to Gilbert, then still a minor. Though his importance had been much diminished, Ralph remained active in Edward II's reign, holding positions such as keeper of the forest south of Trent, and seems to have been neutral or on the king's side during the latter's disputes with his barons. In 1314, he was taken prisoner at Bannockburn but was treated as an honored guest by Robert Bruce, who allowed him to return to England without having to pay a ransom. A story goes that years before, Monthermer, having gotten wind of a plan of Edward I to capture Bruce while he was in London, had sent him a pair of spurs and coins bearing the king's head as a hint that he should slip away. Bruce, having profited from the hint, later remembered this good deed when Monthermer became his prisoner.

Ralph died on April 5, 1325, and was buried in the Grey Friars' church at Salisbury. His descendants through Joan of Acre include Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who helped bring Edward IV to the throne. Warwick's daughter Anne married the future Richard III. It was an impressive lineage for Ralph de Monthermer, the obscure squire who had married a princess.


AnneMarie Brear said...

Enjoyable post, Susan. Thank you.

Maggi Andersen said...

Another interesting post, Susan. I enjoyed it.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks, ladies!