On January 1, 1327, Queen Isabella, having executed her enemies and imprisoned her husband, King Edward II, turned her attention to much smaller matters: Hugh le Despenser the younger’s little daughters. On that day, the queen issued an order that Eleanor le Despenser be packed off to Sempringham, a Gilbertine priory in Lincolnshire, and veiled as a nun “without delay.” A similar order sent Margaret to Watton, another Gilbertine priory in Yorkshire. Coming just a few weeks after the brutal execution of the girls’ father and the imprisonment of their mother, the queen’s orders completed the unraveling of the privileged existence these girls had enjoyed.
Hugh le Despenser had left four sons and five daughters behind him. Isabel, the oldest of the girls, was about fourteen. She had been married as a child to Richard Fitzalan and thereby escaped her younger sisters’ fate.
Joan had been intended to marry the Earl of Kildaire’s son, John, but he had died in 1323 or 1324, age nine. Joan herself also was veiled as a nun at Shaftesbury Abbey, but no order from Isabella appears to be extant in her case, so whether she was caught up in Isabella’s net too or was veiled for some other reason is uncertain. (It seems unlikely, though, that her parents, having arranged for her marriage, would later decide to veil her, unless some physical or mental problem had appeared after John’s death that made them consider her unsuitable for marriage. And it seems highly unlikely that Isabella would have veiled her younger sisters but left Joan alone.)
At the time of the queen’s order, Eleanor was contracted to marry Laurence Hastings, the future Earl of Pembroke; he was about seven years old. Isabella ignored this contract, and Hastings ultimately married one of the many daughters of Roger Mortimer, the queen’s lover.
Judging from a record dated March 1, 1327, in which one Thomas de Houk was forgiven a debt for having boarded Margaret for three years, Margaret was probably only about three or four at the time of her forced veiling.
Elizabeth, the youngest Despenser girl, was not veiled. She eventually would marry Maurice de Berkeley, the heir to the man in whose custody Edward II was killed in 1327. We can only speculate as to why Isabella chose not to include her in the forced veiling. Perhaps it might have been her extremely young age; assuming that Elizabeth was fairly close to the age of her future husband, she was probably no more than an infant in January 1327. It is also possible that she was in her mother’s womb at the time of the veiling of her sisters.
That the queen’s orders were carried out quickly, as instructed, is apparent from an entry in the Calendar of Memoranda Rolls dated February 23, 1327. There the prior of Sempringham obtained forgiveness for a debt of nearly forty pounds because of the charges the priory had incurred in veiling Eleanor.
Despite Isabella’s efforts, the girls were not forgotten by their family. Margaret died at Watton some time in 1337; her aunt Elizabeth de Burgh sent items to be used for her burial. Margaret may have lived in some style before her death; in 1332, the prior at Watton, having been hit up for money by Edward III, who was fund-raising for his sister's wedding, pleaded penury, offering as an excuse the large number of nuns at Watton and the necessity to maintain Margaret le Despenser. In 1337, the crown granted Eleanor twenty pounds per year, presumably at the request of her eldest brother, Hugh, who was also the recipient of royal largesse at that time. Hugh granted Joan twenty marks per year in 1343. In 1345, Hugh, aided by Queen Philippa, the Earl of Lancaster, the Earl of Derby, and the Earl of Warwick, presented a petition to the Pope to have certain privileges for Sempringham confirmed. The petition was granted. Eleanor was still living in 1351; Joan lived into the reign of Richard II, dying in 1384.
There were precedents for the queen’s command. As readers of Sharon Penman’s epic historical novel The Reckoning know, after the Welsh prince Llywelyn was slain, Edward I sent his infant daughter, Gwenllian, to Sempringham, where she was veiled and would spend the rest of her life. (Indeed, she lived until 1337, and probably encountered little Eleanor le Despenser when she was sent to Sempringham in 1327.) Following the capture and execution of Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd, Edward I had his young daughters sent to English priories, where they like their cousin Gwenllian were veiled. (Dafydd’s sons suffered a worse fate, imprisonment for life.) Edward II himself sent Roger Mortimer’s daughters and a host of other female relatives of his enemies to priories after the Battle of Boroughbridge, but never forced them to take the veil.
It is unclear what Isabella’s motivations were: expedience, caution, spite, or some combination thereof. Edward I’s decision to “disappear” the daughters of the Welsh royal family by veiling them at least had a cold-blooded logic behind it; by their lineage they would have posed a threat to the king’s dominance over Wales had they been allowed to live free and marry. The Despenser girls, however, posed no similar threat to Isabella and Mortimer. With their father dead and disgraced, they were of no political importance. They were not even potential heiresses; all their parents’ lands were in the hands of the crown at the time, and even if there had been some land in the family, there was a male heir to inherit it, with three spares as backup. In any case, if Isabella had perceived the veiling of the girls to be important as a security measure, she would surely not have let the youngest girl, Elizabeth, escape the habit. Perhaps the queen simply wanted to dispose of the girls cheaply; the expenses of their imprisoned mother, Eleanor de Clare, were being paid by the crown, and dumping her daughters into convents meant that someone else other than the crown was burdened with their care.
Oddly, in her sympathetic biography of Isabella, Alison Weir refers to the girls’ being “placed in convents while their mother was in the Tower” and states that they “later became nuns”—ignoring altogether the coercive role Isabella played in their veiling. (She also cites the pardon of their brother Hugh as an instance of Isabella’s leniency, disregarding the fact that the pardon was one in name only, since Hugh remained in prison until after Isabella and Mortimer’s downfall.) This misinterpretation of the unambiguous orders issued for Eleanor and Margaret is puzzling, to say the least, as other historians, such as Eileen Power and Frances Underwood, have mentioned them.
Long before these modern historians took note of the orders veiling the Despenser girls, however, they were duly noted in the nineteenth century by a prolific historical novelist of the time, Emily Sarah Holt, who made Margaret and Eleanor le Despenser’s confinement the subject of a novel called In Convent Walls. Like the other novels of Holt’s I’ve read, In Convent Walls is a weird mixture of sharp-eyed observation of human foibles, painstaking research, anti-Catholicism, and not-at-all-subtle Protestant evangelism, and it will probably be to few modern readers’ tastes. Still, it’s oddly comforting to see that by one nineteenth-century literary lady at least, two little medieval girls, starting the new year of 1327 by being torn from all that was familiar to them, were remembered with compassion.