Wonder Woman 1184

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-Irish ancestry, and one of the wealthiest heiresses in the medieval world. Soul City Wanderer briefs.

Soul City Wanderer’s own book Soul City Wandering was released in 2020. Available in paperback or on Kindle, it encourages readers to rediscover their urban surroundings.

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 the powerful Norman baron Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (1130-76), aka “Strongbow”, and Aoife (Eva) of Leinster.

Aoife was the daughter of King Dairmaid (Dermot McMurrough) of Leinster. The marriage was part of a deal: in return for military support in reclaiming lands that Dairmaid had lost, Richard was promised the titles and properties on his father-in law’s death, which occurred in 1171. On Richard’s death in 1176, the inheritance was held in stasis as his only son Gilbert was just three-years-old.

In 1184, aged 11, Gilbert became gravely ill. Suddenly, his older sister Isabel was thrust into the limelight. As the oldest surviving heir, she was in line to become one of the most powerful and wealthiest independent women in medieval Europe. This came to pass just a few months later when Gilbert died. At the age of just 13, Isabel became Countess of Pembroke in her own right (suo jure) and in the process, inherited vast tracts of land in southern Ireland and southern Wales, and the overlordship of many castles and strategic fortifications including Chepstow, Haverford, Lewhaden, Milford Haven, Narberth, Pembroke, Stackpole and Tenby.

Four years later, Isabel was betrothed to a man 26 years her senior, the Anglo-Norman knight William Marshal. Aka, the ‘flower of chivalry’, Marshal was born in 1146, son of John FitzGilbert, a marshal for the royal household. Between 1170-80, Marshal trained as a tournament knight in France and found celebrity in the ‘melee’ contests which were fought over many miles of terrain. A favourite of Queen Eleanor, his exploits brought him access to the royal court of Henry II.

Henry saw that by arranging the marriage of Marshal to Isabel, his loyal courtier would assume her titles and lands, as was the Norman custom, and in doing so, effectively secure them under the Anglo-Norman realm. When Henry died in 1189, his son Richard I also saw the political advantages of the match. So, in August 1189, before the new king had even been crowned, the 17-year-old Isabel de Clare married the 43-year-old William Marshal.

It was Isabel’s wealth that paid for the impressive wedding arrangements. But while she stayed in the royal residence at the Tower of London, her less affluent husband-to-be had to cadge pre-nuptial lodgings in the house of a friend. Records point to a spectacular marriage at St Paul’s Cathedral, with subsequent celebrations of ‘due pomp and ceremony’ taking place in the City of London and a honeymoon at Stoke d’Abernon in Surrey.

The marriage to Isabel transformed Marshal’s fame into power. However, despite the vast age difference between them, and the official subjugation of her rights to her new husband, the marriage, by all accounts, was a remarkably happy and fruitful one, producing ten children. And indeed, Isabel was no subservient wife and mother. She took an active part in the realm she now shared with her husband.

Isabel took chief place amongst the council of the men who now owed service to Marshal. While he 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. Here, she was respected independently of her husband. 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. Her advice was sought and her consent was valued.

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 the final result as “a lovely city on the banks of the Barrow”. In addition, Isabel took responsibility for the defence of those Irish lands. In effect, a military commander in her own right.

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, Marshal 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

Magna Carta would come to have a key impact on Isabel’s rights. Marshal 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 Magna Carta on Marshal’s behalf. It is interesting to note that clauses 7 and 8 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 liberties. So Isabel re-inherited all her lands, on loan by marriage, and became a power in her own right once again after her husband’s death, and 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 is reasonable to suggest that Isabel may herself have exerted some considerable influence in the inclusion of clauses 7 and 8. In which case, does not medieval, and thus modern womanhood, owe her a debt of gratitude?

Sadly, for Isabel, her new-found independence 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 will find very relatively little about Isabel in the history books. Even William Marshal’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. A Wonder Woman of her age, her incredible story surely deserves better recognition. Would any screen-writer care to take up the mantle?


Soul City Wanderer’s own book Soul City Wandering was released in 2020. Available in paperback or on Kindle, it encourages readers to rediscover their urban surroundings.

“A great book… a great guide.

Poems… music… history… and fantastic ways to… go for walks”

Robert Elms, BBC Radio London
Soul City Wandering – the 5-star rated top ten bestseller

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: