Alice de Lacy was the daughter of Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, and Margaret Longespee, Countess of Salisbury. Born at Denbigh Castle, her birthday is usually recorded as Christmas Day, 25th December 1281, although that may have been the date of her baptism.
She had an elder brother, Edmund, who died in a childhood accident. There are various stories about Edmund’s death. One is that he drowned in the well at Denbigh Castle; another that he fell from the ramparts at Pontefract Castle; and a less well known story that he fell from an upper storey window at Ightenhill manor house. Whether any of these stories is true there is no way of knowing, but Edmund seems to have come to a tragic end one way or another.
There was also another brother named John. Tradition has it that he also died in a childhood accident, but there is some confusion. John lived, but did not inherit because he was illegitimate and only a half-brother to Alice. A couple of things have led me to this conclusion. The first is Alice’s gift of the advowson of the church of St Michael at Swaveton (now Swaton) in Lincolnshire to Barlings Abbey. In the document she requests prayers for the souls of Edward I and Eleanor his wife, Henry de Lacy, sometime Earl of Lincoln, and Margaret his wife, her father and mother, Edmund her brother, her ancestors and heirs. No mention is made of a brother John, which is odd if he had also died. John de Lacy is also mentioned in Alice’s petition to the king in 1336, after she was abducted by Hugh de Frene and detained by him in the Tower of London. Alice asks for a speedy resolution and the return of her castle at Bolingbroke. It seems that her half-brother John, for reasons known only to him, was a party to her abduction and she was very angry with him.
Because Alice was the only legitimate child of Henry de Lacy, it would have been important to him to arrange a marriage for her that would safeguard the de Lacy fortune for the next generation. Henry made an arrangement for her marriage to the king’s nephew, Thomas, who was heir to the earldoms of Lancaster and Leicester. It must have seemed an excellent match, but it ended in disaster.
Alicia’s Fall From Favour
As part of Alice’s marriage settlement, her father, Henry, released the bulk of his fortune to the king who granted it back to him for his lifetime. On his death it was to pass to the heirs of Thomas and Alice, or to Thomas’s heirs should Alice die childless. Thomas was also to inherit the earldom of Lincoln on Henry’s death.
It must have seemed to Henry the best way to provide for his hoped for grandsons. But although Thomas of Lancaster fathered at least two illegitimate children, he and Alice had no heirs. It seems that they disliked one another and after the death of Henry de Lacy, Thomas banished his wife to Pickering Castle in north Yorkshire – although he did build a new hall for her at the cost of £341,15s 8d (more than £35,000 in modern money). Four hundred cartloads of stone were used in its construction and the private chamber of the Countess was in the upper storey and was an elaborately plastered room with a fireplace decorated with plaster of Paris. Generous though this may have appeared it cut Alice off from the hub of court life at Pontefract Castle, which had been her home. It seems that Thomas was content to claim the de Lacy lands and titles for himself and no longer had any need for his wife.
Alice was not a prisoner at Pickering however and by 1316 she was living at a property that had belonged to her mother and grandmother. The manor of Canford in Dorset was a hunting lodge. Why Alice decided to go there is not recorded, but the chronicles of the time are full of gossip, some more outlandish than others, about how she was abducted from this property by John de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey.
The gesta of Edward of Caernarvon, written by a canon of Bridlington says: In that same year (1317) the wife of Thomas of Lancaster, namely the daughter of Henry de Lacy Earl of Lincoln, left the household and power of her husband and the Earl de Warenne took her under his protection.
Thomas of Walsingham, however, writes in much more detail. It is he who claims that amongst the men who took her from Canford was a lowly knight named, Richard de St Martin, who was lame and hunchback. He says that this knight claimed to have known Alice carnally before her marriage to Thomas of Lancaster and that in front of everyone she recognised him and acknowledged it to be true. In conclusion he writes: She, who during the whole 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.
The fact that Alice was only about 13 years old when she was married and that there is no evidence to confirm this tale has not stopped later historians repeating it as true. The writer of the Westminster chronicle Flores Historiarum says: In this way, the countess, besmirching the nobility and honour of her family, clinging to the lame knight, transformed her name from countess to ignoble adulteress.
Richard de St Martin was a real person. He was the lord of the village of Hempton in Norfolk which is near Walsingham. He held the manor from the Warenne family so there are some connections, but it makes me wonder if this chronicler had some reason to try to discredit him as he goes on to say: Richard, raising himself above his station, presumed in the king’s court to lay claim to the earldoms of Lincoln and Salisbury in the name of his wife. I can find no other evidence of this happening and I suspect that the chronicler may have had his own reasons for writing what he did!
The kidnap/rescue was a true event. In the Vita Edwardi Secundi, the author records that Thomas of Lancaster declined the king’s summons to court because The enmity of the court is now clearly evident; now they disgracefully and scandalously kidnapped the wife of the earl. So, it could be that the king, who was on increasingly bad terms with his cousin Thomas of Lancaster, knew and agreed to the abduction of Alice.
It was not long after this that Thomas of Lancaster openly rebelled against the king. His rebellion ended with his defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. Although Alice may have been glad to be rid of her hated husband, events did not turn out well for her. She was arrested on the orders of the king, held at York Castle, and forced to sign away her interests in most of her lands – not only the de Lacy lands, but all the Salisbury lands that were her inheritance from her mother and rightly hers.
From the Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward II on June 26th1322 at York: Alesia, late the wife of Thomas, late earl of Lancaster, daughter and heiress of Henry de Lacy, late earl of Lincoln, acknowledges that she owes to the king 20,000l.; to be levied, in default of payment, of her lands and chattels in England and Wales.
She was given a handful of manors to support her during her lifetime and sent back to Lincolnshire where the king provided her with protection. Whether this was to keep her safe or to prevent her being used as a figurehead for a new rebellion is questionable. But at this point in her life we find Alice fallen from being one of the most important noblewomen in the country to being a widow under virtual house arrest on a small manor in Lincolnshire.
My novel Favoured Beyond Fortune is based on the life of Alice de Lacy.
Alicia’s Second Marriage
By November 1324, Alicia was the wife of Eble le Strange. He is recorded as being a member of the household of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster in 1313 when he is included with his brother Hamon, and his cousins Fulk and Robert of Blackmere, in the pardon, granted on 16th October, to the adherents of the Earl of Lancaster for the death of Piers Gaveston.
It may have been whilst he was serving in the household of Thomas of Lancaster that he first met Alice de Lacy, but when and where they met remains open to speculation as there is no evidence. But the accusations that Eble le Strange had a relationship with Alice de Lacy before the death of Thomas of Lancaster cannot be dismissed. Certainly they married as soon as they could after Thomas was executed and were married before 10th November 1324 when the Sheriff of Lincoln was ordered to pay Eble and ‘Alice, daughter and heiress of Henry de Lacy, late Earl of Lincoln, now his wife’ the arrears of £20 yearly for the third part of the county of Lincoln. And looking at other payments made to them they could possibly have been married as soon as Easter 1324.
Eble and Alicia appear to have been happy and in the favour of the king after many difficult years. Edward III returned many of the lands confiscated by his father to them to hold for their lifetimes, including Alicia’s favourite home Bolingbroke Castle where they lived for most of the time, much of Pontefract, and some smaller holdings in Wales, the Midlands and the north, including Clitheroe castle. But in 1335, Edward III invaded Scotland and, tragically, Eble died whilst on campaign. He was buried at Barlings Abbey in Lincolnshire where, later, Alicia would be buried beside him.
Alicia’s Third Marriage
After the death of Eble, Edward III quickly ordered the escheators to surrender Alice’s lands to her. Alicia took a vow of chastity before the bishop of Lincoln, indicating her devotion to Eble and also to safeguard herself against potential suitors who would be attracted by her wealth. Unfortunately her fears were justified. Sir Hugh de Freyne, who was her steward at Cardigan Castle, bribed her servants to give him entry to Bolingbroke Castle and seized her from the hall. In an attempt to escape, Alicia deliberately fell from the horse she had forced to ride, but she was put back on the horse, closely surrounded by guards and taken to Somerton Castle where Hugh raped her.
Rape cases were usually adjudicated under Canon Law, and the punishment for the rapist was marriage to his victim. So Alice was forced into a marriage with Sir Hugh. Her vow of chastity did not help her and there is a suggestion that she received a letter from the pope criticising her for breaking her vow. It must have been a sad and difficult time for her, especially when she became aware of the betrayal by her half brother.
“SC 8/64/3163: Petitioners: [Alice de Lacy], Countess of Lincoln.
Addressees: King and council Places mentioned: Bolingbroke,
[Lincolnshire]; Somerton, [Lincolnshire]; London. Other people
mentioned: Hugh de Frene; John de Lacy, brother of the petitioner.
Nature of request: Lacy requests that a speedy remedy be ordained for
her so that she may be at her own will and amongst her friends, as she
has been ravished by Frene, who has taken her from her castle of
Bolingbroke and is detained by him in the Tower of London. [c. 1335].”
The king’s response is interesting. He sent Hugh de Freyne to join the royal forces in Scotland and he died there in February 1337. Alice renewed her vow of chastity and apart from some trouble with Eble’s nephew, Roger, over his part of the inheritance, she lived as a noble and wealthy widow until her death at the age of 67 in 1348, during the outbreak of the Black Death.