In May 1317, Alice de Lacy was escorted from her hunting lodge at Canford in Dorset and taken to Reigate Castle which was owned by John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. Early historians mostly record this as an abduction, although some have noted that Alice, as ‘a wanton adulteress’, may have been running away to meet up with her lover.
Writing almost a hundred years after the event, the chronicler, Thomas of Walsingham, says that the man she left Canford with was a Richard de St Martin – a lame and hunchback knight with whom she had had ‘carnal relations’ before her marriage to Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. The fact that Alice was married to Thomas at around 13 years old would seem to imply that the story is actually nonsense, but it is one which is repeated over and over in the accounts of her life, seemingly copied from one source to another without any author stopping to think about the veracity of what they are claiming.
Walsingham wrote a lengthy and frankly bizarre account of what happened. He claims that on the Monday before the Feast of the Ascension, Alice de Lacy was abducted by a knight of the household of John Warenne. Whilst she was being taken to Reigate Castle, her abductors saw a group of men in the distance with standards and, thinking that they were soldiers sent by her husband, they abandoned Alice by a hedge and ran away. But when they realised that the ‘soldiers’ were a group of holy men making a procession around the fields, they came back to take Alice prisoner once more. It is Walsingham who names one of the abductors as Richard de St Martin and says that Alice recognised him and admitted that it was true she had known him carnally. He says that she was not abducted in fear and that ‘she, who during the while of her life had been considered the noblest of noble ladies, suddenly by a turn of the wheel of fortune, by this shame is acclaimed by the whole world to be the foulest whore.’
Although the author of The Battle Abbey Roll has seen that Walsingham’s account is flawed and says ‘Alice de Lacy was only nine years old when she became Countess of Lancaster, the allegation of a previous clandestine marriage is an absurdity’ he goes on to malign Alice’s reputation and perpetuate the myth of the ‘lame knight’ saying ‘She was a woman of notoriously bad character, repudiated by the Earl several years before his death, who ‘lived in unlawful familiarity with Eubolo Le Strange’, her second husband, long before she married him. Singular as it may appear, it seems proven that this little hunchback was a favoured lover, and that the pretended abduction was in reality concerted between them.’
Alison Weir, in her more recent publication Isabella, the She-Wolf of France, Queen of England is still repeating a version of Walsingham. She has realised that it’s improbable that Richard de St Martin was Alice’s lover, so she substitutes Eble le Strange, who became Alice’s second husband, saying that ‘Lestraunge lost no time in proclaiming to the world that he had slept with her before her marriage, and in so doing severely compromised her reputation.’ Oh dear. I had hoped that modern historians might have come nearer to the truth.
When you look at the facts, the only thing we know for sure is that Alice was taken from Canford Manor to Reigate Castle and came under the protection of John de Warenne. If it was an abduction, the reason may have been that John de Warenne was angry with Thomas of Lancaster because he had intervened and prevented Warenne’s divorce from his wife, Joan de Bar, that would have allowed him to marry his mistress and mother of his sons, Maud de Nerford. It was a divorce that the king had approved but that Thomas managed to prevent by producing a papal dispensation for the original marriage that made the divorce impossible. Warenne knew that kidnapping Alice would make Thomas very cross. And Thomas was indeed cross – not quite cross enough to demand the return of his wife, but certainly cross enough to wage war on John de Warenne, besieging his castles at Sandal and Conisbrough, and turning Maud de Nerford out of her home.
I think that Gerry Lacey in his book, The Legacy of the de Lacy, Lacey, Lacy Family, 1066-1994, also comes close to the truth when he writes that Alice left her husband because of his determination to challenge the king and that she willingly placed herself under the protection of John de Warenne. The role of Edward II in Alice’s supposed abduction is often overlooked. He was at loggerheads with his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, and by allowing John de Warenne to take Alice under his protection he knew that he could annoy and discredit him.
Did Alice go willingly? Possibly. She had been living a separate life from Thomas since he had sent her to live at Pickering Castle in north Yorkshire following the death of her father, Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln. As she saw Thomas falling further out of favour with the king, she may have welcomed some protection from his ally, John de Warenne.
Was Warenne her lover? Although this has been suggested it’s very doubtful. John de Warenne had no interest in marrying Alice de Lacy as it’s recorded that he wanted a divorce to enable him to marry Maud de Nerford.
Did she have a pre-marital affair with the ‘lame knight’ Richard de St Martin? No. This is something concocted from the fevered imagination of Thomas of Walsingham with no basis in truth.
Was Eble le Strange her lover? I think this is likely. She certainly went on to marry him and it’s feasible that she knew him prior to her husband’s death. He was not the ‘lame knight’ of Walsingham’s story, however, and was not a member of John de Warenne’s household. He was, in fact, a member of the household of Thomas of Lancaster. Was he the man who escorted her from Canford Manor? He may have been. There is no proof, but sometimes there is an element of truth in the stories of chroniclers such as Walsingham – and I think that even though politics was the real reason behind the abduction, Alice may have been a willing participant if the man who lifted her onto his horse and took her to safety was her beloved Eble.
You can read more about the story of Alice de Lacy and Eble in my novel Favoured Beyond Fortune.