A Forgotten Woman of British History

800 years ago, the body of one of the most powerful but little-known women in British history was buried. She was of noble Norman-Welsh and Irish ancestry, and one of the wealthiest heiresses in the medieval world. Soul City Wanderer reveals more.

The body of Isabel de Clare is buried under the quire at Tintern Abbey

In July 1220, the body of Isabel de Clare was buried under the quire at Tintern Abbey in south Wales. Isabel was born in Pembrokeshire in 1172, the daughter of Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (1130-76), aka “Strongbow”, and Aoife of Leinster, daughter of King Dairmaid of Leinster. At the age of just 13, as a sole heir, Isabel became Countess of Pembroke in her own right. Soon afterwards, she was betrothed to a man 26 years her senior, the Anglo-Norman knight William Marshal.

Aka the ‘flower of chivalry’, William was born in 1146, son of John FitzGilbert, a marshal for the royal household. Between 1170-80, William trained as a knight in France and found celebrity in the ‘melee’ tournaments, which were fought over many miles. He fame brought him access to the court of Henry II.

In 1189, Henry’s son Richard I arranged for the 17-year-old Isabel to be married to the 43-year-old William. While he cadged pre-nuptial lodgings in the house of a friend, it was Isabel’s wealth that paid for the impressive wedding arrangements. Records point to a marriage at St Paul’s Cathedral, with subsequent celebrations of ‘due pomp and ceremony’ taking place in the City of London.

The marriage to Isabel transformed William’s fame into power. As was the Norman custom, he eventually assumed his wife’s titles and lands, including vast tracts in southern Ireland and southern Wales, and the overlordship of the castles of Kilkenny, Pembroke, and Chepstow.

Despite the vast age difference between them, and the official subjugation of her power to her new husband, the marriage, by all accounts, was a remarkably happy and fruitful one, producing ten children.

But Isabel was no subservient wife and mother. She took an active part in the realm she now shared with her husband. She took chief place in the council of the men who now owed service to him.

While William tended to matters in England, Wales and France, she became a key figure in the running of the Norman-administered Irish lands south of Dublin and down to Cork. She commissioned the construction of several abbeys and assumed the task of the rebuilding of Kilkenny Castle and town. Accounts in the British Museum record that she also ordered the construction of New Ross in Wexford, describing her work as “a lovely city on the banks of the Barrow”.

In addition, she took responsibility for the defence of those Irish lands. In effect, a military commander in her own right.

Isabel was respected independently of William. Her advice was sought and her consent was valued. She was very well educated and multilingual, conversing in French, English, Irish and Latin. She was described as a good, fair, wise and courteous lady of high degree.

The couple remained loyal to ‘Bad’ King John during the Baron’s wars of 1214-16 (despite the king having seized most of their possessions). In 1215, William was the main mediator at the Magna Carta negotiations. When the king died a year later, he oversaw the peaceful transition to the reign of the young Henry III.

William Marshal’s tomb in the Temple Church, London

William died in 1219 aged 73, and was buried in the Temple Church in London (his tomb still visible today).

The executor of his will was Elias of Dereham, the cleric who had administered and circulated the Magna Carta on William’s behalf. It is interesting to note that clauses 7 and 8 of the Magna Carta stipulate that no widow should be compelled to re-marry, and that her inheritance should be guaranteed. It is one of the earliest constitutional calls for women’s rights. Thus, Isabel re-inherited all her lands, on loan by marriage, and became a power in her own right once again, under no mandate to re-marry.

Given the particular situation of Isabel’s inheritance, and the level of William’s involvement in the organisation and execution of the Magna Carta, it may be pertinent to suggest that Isabel may have exerted some considerable influence in the inclusion of clauses 7 and 8. In which case, does not medieval womanhood owe her a debt of gratitude?

Sadly, for Isabel, her new-found freedom and power lasted just over a year. In July, 1220, she died in her native Pembrokeshire, aged 48. She was buried under the quire of Tintern Abbey, close to her family’s stronghold at Chepstow.

You’ll find very relatively little about Isabel in the history books. Even William’s biography The History, completed around 1225, barely mentions her. Her five sons died without issue, apparently owing to a curse placed upon the couple by the Irish Bishop Albin O’Molloy. However, the legacy of the female line was immense. Her daughter’s descendants included many who played the game of thrones in England and Scotland, including five of Henry VIII’s queens.

Isabel de Clare was one of the most extraordinary women in the medieval world, and was a key figure in the shape of things to come. Her story surely deserves more recognition.

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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