Clare, Elizabeth de (1295–1360)

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Clare, Elizabeth de (1295–1360)

Countess of Clare. Name variations: Elizabeth de Burgh. Born in England in 1295 (some sources cite 1291); died on November 4, 1360, in England; third daughter of Joan of Acre, princess of England, and Gilbert de Clare, 9th earl of Clare, 7th earl of Hertford, 3rd earl of Gloucester (1243–1295); married John de Burgh (d. 1313), lord of Ulster, in 1308; married Theobald de Verdon (d. 1316), in 1316; married Roger Damory (d. 1322), baron of Armoy, in 1317; children: (first marriage) William de Burgh, 3rd earl of Ulster (1312–1333); grandmother of Elizabeth de Burgh (1332–1362).

Elizabeth de Clare was a powerful and wealthy English noblewoman whose life exemplifies the activities of highborn widows who wished to leave their mark on their society. She was descended from the English royal house, the daughter of the Princess Joan of Acre (herself the daughter of King Edward I Longshanks and Eleanor of Castile ), and Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, an important noble. Around 1308, Elizabeth married the heir of Ulster, John de Burgh, who died five years later. When Elizabeth's brother, who had inherited the family properties, died in 1314, the vast holdings of the de Clares (probably the wealthiest of the kingdom) were split between Elizabeth and her two sisters, Margaret de Clare (c. 1293–1342) and Eleanor de Clare (1292–1337). Two years later, the young widow was kidnapped and forced to marry Theobald de Verdon, a noble who wanted her rich estates for himself. Fortunately for Elizabeth, he died several months later; the next year, she married the knight Roger Damory.

Elizabeth seems to have been destined to widowhood, for Roger was executed in 1322 by order of the powerful and greedy Lord Hugh Despenser, who at the time had control of the ineffectual king Edward II. Despenser had the wealthy heiress Elizabeth forcibly taken to Barking Abbey after her husband's death, and kept there until she granted him all her holdings in Wales. The next year, all her holdings were seized by Despenser and Elizabeth was incarcerated again. When Edward III succeeded his father in 1327 and Despenser lost power, Elizabeth was restored to all her proper inheritance. After the chaos and tragedies of her youth, she settled down to a life of managing her estates from her main residence at Clare Castle in Suffolk, also building a reputation as a generous founder and pious noblewoman.

Although her widowed years were relatively peaceful and independent of male control, Elizabeth was by no means unoccupied. She oversaw all the activities of a large household of over 200 employees, ranging in class from her most important land managers to the accountants, reeves, auditors, laundresses and gardeners. Not everyone at Clare Castle had a strictly practical function; Elizabeth had no less than four goldsmiths who created jewelry and art pieces for her and handled the maintenance of her precious ornaments, plates, and jewelry. Her officers managed the income from her various estates in Wales, Dorset, East Anglia, and Ireland. She entertained visitors on a regular basis both at Clare Castle and in her London house, seeing local nobility as well as members of the royal family and the nuns of the Franciscan convents that she supported.

Elizabeth's generosity and piety were well-known. Household records reveal the distribution of a daily money allowance to about 800 of the local poor. The widow also became an important supporter of various religious houses, and had a particular fondness for the Franciscan nuns, called Minoresses. In addition, she was a great supporter of education, giving grants for (male) clerks to attend the large colleges like Oxford. In 1336, she founded Clare College (still in existence) at Cambridge; originally named University Hall, it was renamed after her primary title, Lady of Clare, in her honor. She provided the funds for the buildings as well as stipends for the scholars and set out the statutes for the college, prescribing the number of students allowed and the courses each must take. On her death, Elizabeth left Clare College some books, more money, gold, and vestments. Her will also provided generous pensions for her servants, bequests to the Minoress houses, and gifts of her jewelry and other precious items to her friends, notably Countess Marie de St. Pol , with whom Elizabeth had developed an intimate relationship. The great widow died at age 65.

Laura York , Riverside, California

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Clare, Elizabeth de (1295–1360)

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