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How 14th century aristocrat Elizabeth de Burgh defied convention to escape the marriage market and control her own destiny

She was a child bride who had outlived three husbands by the age of 26. But Elizabeth de Burgh - granddaughter of a king and one of the richest people in England - then proved herself to be a woman way ahead of her time.

In the 14th century the usual fate of an aristocratic widow who chose not to remarry was banishment to a nunnery.

Not so the remarkable Lady Elizabeth who for almost 40 years after the death of her third husband continued to rule her widespread estates from her Suffolk home.

Elizabeth de Clare, Lady de Burgh, by John Faber Sr, after Unknown Artist, 1714 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth de Clare, Lady de Burgh, by John Faber Sr, after Unknown Artist, 1714 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Her life was one that began in turbulence and tragedy, but ended with her having secured control of her own destiny.

Today, only a small section of the keep remains of Clare Castle where she spent most of her life. The area around it is now a country park.

Her lands included Sudbury, where one of her legacies is the Market Hill which was established and laid out under her guidance.

Market Hill, Sudbury. Picture by Mark Westley
Market Hill, Sudbury. Picture by Mark Westley

Strong traces of the original medieval layout still remain in what is now the commercial heart of the town.

She also generously endowed Clare College, Cambridge - the university’s second oldest college - including scholarships for ten ‘poor’ students.

But her influence had been mostly forgotten in Suffolk, until Sudbury Heritage Centre featured her imagined image in paintings of people important to the town.

And a biography ‘For Her Good Estate’ by Frances A. Underhill was published in early 2020.

Clare Castle
Clare Castle

This year a campaign during a public vote to find a new name for the town’s Black Boy pub led to it being called the Lady Elizabeth.

The exceptional life of the Lady of Clare proved instantly fascinating for history-lover Tonia Lawes who began volunteering at Sudbury Heritage Centre as a sixth former.

Tonia, since graduated from University College London with a first class degree in archaeology and anthropology, has now researched and written Elizabeth’s story for the heritage centre’s website.

Tonia Lawes who has researched Elizabeth de Burgh for the Sudbury Heritage Centre. Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography
Tonia Lawes who has researched Elizabeth de Burgh for the Sudbury Heritage Centre. Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography

“I’ve been really lucky that they let me get so involved,” she said.

“We had a few wall paintings of people who were significant to Sudbury. One of them was Elizabeth de Burgh, but there wasn’t much detail about her.

“I absolutely found her fascinating straight away... the fact a woman of the period could be independent financially, and wealthy.

“It’s a shame it came about so tragically, but of course we don’t really know how she felt about her husbands,” added Tonia who is now completing a Masters in public archaeology.

“The project took about three months during lockdown. I had just finished my undergraduate dissertation.

“I’d tell myself I was just going to do half an hour in the morning and it would be 6pm before I knew it.

Elizabeth de Burgh at the Sudbury Heritage Centre. Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography
Elizabeth de Burgh at the Sudbury Heritage Centre. Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography

“I had a lot of help from the Sudbury Museum Trust, putting me in touch with people who have looked into her story before, and who were really helpful. It’s been a team effort, really.”

“I love archaeology, but I’m also thinking of working in museums in a public-facing role,” said Tonia who lives in Sudbury with her mum, Angela Jarvis.

The woman born Elizabeth de Clare in 1295 was the youngest daughter of powerful nobleman Gilbert de Clare – Earl of Gloucester and Hertford – and his second wife, Joan of Acre, daughter of King Edward I.

She was a descendent of Richard FitzGilbert, a Norman knight who built Clare Castle in around 1090.

Clare Castle
Clare Castle

Elizabeth, born in Tewkesbury, Gloucester, was the youngest of two sisters and a brother. Her father would die within months, leaving his four-year-old son – also named Gilbert – to succeed him.

Elizabeth’s mother remarried two years later to one of her late husband’s squires, to the fury of the King who had just announced her engagement to a foreign prince.

Joan died at Clare when Elizabeth was 12, leaving her and her siblings orphaned. But as later events showed, she had inherited her mother’s strong will.

At the time, young and wealthy women were often considered little more than marriage pawns and child marriages were common to secure ties between families.

Elizabeth, with her substantial inheritance and close connection to royalty, would have been seen as quite a catch.

And so, at the age of 13 she was married to John de Burgh, the son of a powerful Irish Lord who was almost a decade older.

It sounds shocking today. “Now it seems horrible for her to have been married at that age,” said Tonia.

“As far as we know it was a full marriage, not just a contract. We don’t know if it was immediately consummated, or if they waited a few years, but she would have had all the responsibilities of being married.”

She moved with her husband to the de Burgh’s Irish seat in Ulster accompanied by her brother, who was to marry into the same family.

Four years after her wedding, Elizabeth had a son, William, who became the 3rd Earl of Ulster.

In 1314, tragedy struck when her husband and brother Gilbert both died.

She was a widow, just 19 years old, and very wealthy having inherited a third of the entire Clare estate as well as significant holdings in Ireland.

Elizabeth retained her first husband’s name throughout her life, most likely for the prestige rather than any lingering affection.

It has led historians to sometimes confuse her with her sister-in-law, another Elizabeth de Burgh, who married Robert the Bruce and became Queen of Scotland.

In 1316 she was married again, in a rushed wedding, to Theobald, 2nd Lord of Verdun. It was quite possibly a kidnapping and definitely against the wishes of the King, Elizabeth’s uncle Edward II.

Theobald died within six months, leaving Elizabeth pregnant with a daughter, Isabel. Barely a year later she was married for a third time to Sir Roger d’Amory.

They had a daughter – another Elizabeth – the only one of the Lady of Clare’s children to outlive her.

William was murdered in Belfast in 1333 during a family feud, while Isabel died in the 1340s of the Black Death.

D’Amory was killed in 1321 during a failed uprising against Edward II’s favourite councillor Hugh Despenser the Younger.

Many of Elizabeth’s lands and goods were confiscated in retaliation for her late husband’s involvement.

Eventually, Despenser fell out of favour and Elizabeth could reclaim the lands she had lost.

The King, recognising the temptation this was to greedy and belligerent subjects, consented to her decision to remain celibate for the rest of her days.

Most women of her age who did not want to remarry would have been ‘encouraged’ to join a nunnery.

Elizabeth’s choice to retain her wealth and power as a single woman highlights her strong will and independent nature.

At just 26 she was running large estates in Suffolk, Wales, Dorset, and Ireland plus several smaller holdings.

Her new found freedom allowed her to live as Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady of Clare, for almost four decades, living and investing as she wished.

In Elizabeth’s time, Sudbury was a web of narrow streets, until she invested in an ambitious extension to the east that is now Market Hill.

The timber frames within modern shop fronts, and some surviving long, narrow plots are remnants of this 14th century layout which we can still see today.

Lady Elizabeth’s motives for developing Market Hill are unlikely to have been altruistic, and she almost certainly received a considerable return for her investment.

Much of the planning had been linked to her steward, Robert de Bures. whose military brass in Acton church has been described as the finest in existence.

With the layout planned, it was up to the new tenants to build on their plots. Much of the timber came from Elizabeth’s Woodhall Estate bringing her an early return on her investment.

Like many nobles the Lady of Clare had a duty to ensure that her household and lands were well managed financially and lawfully.

She had rights of jurisdiction over her local lands, taking a vow from all men twice a year to uphold the law, ensuring males over the age of 12 were members of a tax system, and dealing with minor criminal matters.

She also had a close relationship with local merchants, who played a large part in creating a prosperous economy within her holdings.

Elizabeth’s Suffolk property generated £450 of the £3,500 a year her estates produced. Half of this was spent on food to sustain her vast household. She is known to have enjoyed Rhineland wine, salmon and swan.

She maintained 30 knights and squires, who in exchange for an annual stipend wore her livery and served her across the kingdom.

In Sudbury, she also gave financial support to the 1349 foundation of St Bartholomew’s priory.

Elizabeth became the beneficiary in 1336 of a Cambridge college known as University Hall. It was renamed Clare Hall in 1339.

She provided estates for the college and funds to maintain a maximum of 15 scholars, setting up statutes which would not look out of place today including provisions for 10 ‘poor scholars’, who would be maintained financially up to the age of 20.

Most knowledge of Elizabeth comes from manuscripts. What she really looked like, no-one knows. No image from her lifetime is known to exist, but the National Portrait Gallery has a 1714 portrait described as 'after an unknown artist'.

In1866, when Clare railway station was built within the inner bailey of the castle, an elaborate gold cross was found that some believe is linked to Elizabeth.

But others say the decoration suggests early 15th century which is how it is described by its owners, the Royal Collection. It may have belonged to Cecily, Duchess of York and mother of Edward IV and Richard III, who briefly lived at the Castle.

Clare Castle was Lady Elizabeth’s main residence until her death in November 1360, aged 65. In her will she allocated £200 towards her tomb at St Mary’s, Aldgate, London which, though now lost, is thought to have been lavish.

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