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Sudbury, the Lady and the origins of Market Hill

 

 

Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady of Clare, as imagined in the 19th century.

Market Hill, the heart of our town, owes its existence to a 14th century woman of nearby Clare. She was a widow, kin to royalty and ‘lord’ of Sudbury. In Lady Elizabeth de Burgh’s time, Anglo-Saxon Sudbury was an interweaving web of narrow streets, until she invested in an ambitious extension to the east that is now Sudbury’s main trading centre.

The open space in front of the church was used by the market stalls. The timber frames within modern shop fronts, and some surviving long, narrow plots are remnants of this 14th century layout which we can still see today.

Market Hill, as depicted in the 1885 Ordnance Survey Map. The arrow is pointing to one of the narrow layouts.

St Peters present façade developed over the course of this and the following century, although it is possible that an earlier building existed on the site. Together, this means that Market Hill’s medieval influence can still be felt today, with it being most impactful  in the early morning, when the area is devoid of cars.

So how did this 14th century widow come to finance our modern town centre? Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady of Clare, was one of the wealthiest women in England during the 14th century, and Sudbury was among her lands. She was a descendent of Richard FitzGilbert, a Norman knight awarded estates in Suffolk, Essex and Kent following his support of William the Conqueror in 1066. Twenty years later, he was the 6th wealthiest non-royal in England, a position shared with Lady Elizabeth. He built Clare castle in around 1090, which may account for the family name becoming ‘de Clare’. FitzGilbert’s brother would be rewarded lands in Wales, and the family would later conquer more lands in Ireland, some of which would become a part of Elizabeth’s inheritance.

The de Clare family crest.

Fast forward two hundred years, Lady Elizabeth de Clare was born as the youngest daughter of Gilbert de Clare –  Earl of Gloucester and Hertford – and his second wife, Joan of Acre, daughter of King Edward I. Over the years, this royal association would result in Elizabeth becoming the granddaughter, niece and cousin of the Kings of England.

  King Edward I  
     
  Gilbert de Clare –

Joan of Acre

 
   
Gilbert de Clare -Matilda de Burgh Eleanor – Hugh le Despenser the younger Margaret – (2) Hugh Audley ELIZABETH –
   
  (1) John de Burgh (2) Theobald de Verdun (3) Roger D’Amory
       
  William de Burgh – Matilda of Lancaster Isabel de Verdun – Henry de Ferrers of Groby Elizabeth D’Amory –John Bardolf of Wormegay
     
  Elizabeth – Lionel, Duke of Clarence  
               

Born on the 16thSeptember 1295, in Tewkesbury, Gloucester, Elizabeth was the youngest of two sisters and a brother. Sadly, her father would die within months, leaving his four-year-old son – also named Gilbert – to succeed him. Elizabeth’s mother, Joan of Acre, controversially remarried two years later to one of her late husband’s squires, prompting outrage from the King who had just announced her engagement to a foreign prince. Joan died a decade later at Clare, leaving 12-year-old Elizabeth orphaned but, in the face of many turbulent years ahead, having inherited her mother’s strong will.

A child bride

At the age of thirteen she was married to John de Burgh, the son of a powerful Irish Lord. At this time, young and wealthy women very rarely had much say in their future, often considered little more than marriage pawns by both families. As such, child marriages were common to secure ties between families. Lady Elizabeth would retain her first husbands name throughout her life, although this was likely more about the prestige it would carry rather than any lingering affection.

However, her retention of the ‘de Burgh’ name has led historians to occasionally confuse the Lady of Clare with her sister-in-law, another Elizabeth, who married Robert the Bruce and became Queen of Scotland. This uncertainty has been fostered by the future Scottish monarchy marrying at Writtle, Essex; the East Anglian link furthering the mix up.

Our Elizabeth’s wedding led to the future Lady of Clare’s relocation to the de Burgh’s Irish seat in Ulster accompanied by her brother, who was to marry into the same family. Four years after her marriage, Elizabeth had a son, William, who became the 3rd Earl of Ulster. He would be murdered in Belfast in 1333 during a family feud that destroyed the de Burgh’s wealth and privilege, notoriously known as the ‘Burke Civil War’.

This was just one of the many tragedies that occurred during Elizabeth’s life. In 1314, the death of Elizabeth’s husband and brother Gilbert in the same year left her grief-stricken, nineteen years old, and very wealthy (having inherited a third of the entire Clare estate as well as significant holdings in Ireland). It is thought that this is what led to a rushed wedding in 1316 to Theobald, 2nd Lord of Verdun, which was arguably a kidnapping and definitely against the Kings wishes. Indeed, both had to pay heavy fines in compensation. Theobald would die within six months, leaving Elizabeth pregnant with a daughter, Isabel, who would die in the 1340s of the Black death.

At the age of twenty-two, barely a year after Theobalds death, Elizabeth de Burgh was married for a third time to Sir Roger d’Amory. They had a daughter together – yet another Elizabeth – a year later. This girl would be the only one of the Lady of Clare’s children to outlive her. D’Amory died of his wounds in 1321 following his involvement in a failed uprising by barons against Edward II’s favourite councillor – Hugh Despenser the Younger. Despenser had used his influence with the King to acquire vast wealth and lands, usually to the fury of other members of the nobility. Roger’s death left Elizabeth widowed once again, with many of her lands and goods confiscated in retaliation for her late husband’s involvement.

A single woman

Salmon on sale in Sudbury market, one of Elizabeth’s favourite dishes,

Most of her English lands were quickly returned to her, but several lords abused their legal power and favour to seize her holdings in Wales and Ireland. Similar situations occurred with other female widows of the rebellion. Eventually, Despenser fell out of favour and Elizabeth could reclaim the lands she had lost. The King, recognising the temptation her lands were to greedy (and belligerent) subjects, consented to her decision to remain celibate for the rest of her days. This was unusual as most women of her age who did not want to remarry would have been ‘encouraged’ to join a nunnery. Elizabeth’s choice to retain her wealth and power as a single woman highlights her strong will and independent nature.

At this time, Elizabeth was just twenty-six, running large estates in Suffolk (including Sudbury and Woodhall); Gwent (south-east Wales); Cranbourne Estate in Dorset; a third of the County Clare estate in Ireland; and several smaller holdings across the country. Her newfound freedom allowed her to live as Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady of Clare, for almost four decades; living and investing as she wished.

Like many other nobles the Lady of Clare had a duty to ensure that her household and lands were well managed both financially and lawfully. She had rights of jurisdiction over her local lands of Clare and Sudbury, which involved taking a vow from all men twice a year to uphold the law; ensuring that all males over the age of 12 were members of a tithing (tax system); and dealing with minor criminal matters. Elizabeth also had a close relationship with local merchants, who played a large part in creating a prosperous economy within her holdings. For example, in 1342, her accounts note that a ‘Nigel Tebaud’ contributed ‘6 1/8 ells, 1 lamb’ (‘ells’ refering to cloth for robes). This Nigel was the father of Simon of Sudbury, who would become Archbishop of Canterbury and was later murdered in the Peasant’s Revolt. In 1317, the Honour of Clare was valued, allowing us a glimpse into 14th century estates. Sudbury (as part of this land) was found to be worth £75 0s 2d (£34,510.37 today!), whilst Woodhall Manor to the north was worth £33 2s 1 1/2d (£15,230.80). In total, Lady Elizabeth’s Suffolk estates generated £450 of the £3500 a year her estates produced for her, although half of this was spent on the food needed to sustain her vast household. Indeed, Elizabeth is known to have often enjoyed Rhineland wine, salmon and swan. She also maintained 30 Knights and Squires, who in exchange for an annual stipend wore her livery and served her across the kingdom.

The Lady of Clare was a beneficiary of religious and educational foundations. In Sudbury, she gave financial support to the 1349 foundation of St. Bartholomew’s priory. The ten marks left in her will to the ‘friars preacher of Sudbury’ likely referred to this or the Dominican friary in the town.

Clare College in Cambridge

Lady Elizabeth also invested in nearby Cambridge, becoming the beneficiary of a college there in 1336 after attaining a licence from the King. Originally known as University Hall College, following Elizabeth’s investment it became known as Clare Hall in 1339, and is the second oldest of Cambridge’s thirty-one colleges. As part of her endowment, Elizabeth provided estates for the college in Duxford and Great Gransden; funds to maintain a maximum of fifteen scholars; and set up statutes for the college which would not look out of place today. This included provisions for ten ‘poor scholars’, who would be maintained financially by the college (rather than their families) up to the age of twenty.

Market Hill


Lady Elizabeth’s motives for developing Market Hill is unlikely to have been altruistic, and she almost certainly received a considerable return for her investment. It should be understood though that much of the planning had been linked to her steward, Robert de Bures. He had a long career of service to King Edward I, and his military brass in Acton church is described by some authorities as the finest in existence.

Sudbury’s Market Hill was carefully organised so as not to encroach on the lands of neighbouring Estates, which over the centuries have gradually been absorbed into Sudbury. An exact date for its construction is unclear, although it was likely to have been between 1318 and 1325.

 

Aerial view of Market Hill. St Peter’s church as a focal point delineating where the extension to the old town ended, and other estates began.

Whilst the modern façade of St. Peter’s may not have been completed until a century after Elizabeth, a chapel of the same name did exist next to St. Gregory’s church at this time. Some have used the Norman chevron mouldings in today’s building to suggest that this chapel was moved onto the site around the same time as the market was constructed.

Later, housing developments encroached on the open space in front of the church, as depicted in early 19th century images of the town. This had been swept away by the 1840s, and now it is often used for the market and as a car park.

Aerial view of the land behind St Peter’s, which at the time belonged to three different manor estates.

 Whilst the layout was planned by the authorities, it was up to the new tenants to build on their plots. Much of the timber for these buildings was acquired from Elizabeth’s Woodhall Estate, bringing an early return on her investment. You can still see the timber framing of the former side entrance in the foyer of the Nationwide Building Society branch Office. The original layout would usually have been long and narrow, with the front area for the customers, a manufacturing or storage area at the back, and a living quarters upstairs. This can still be seen in some of the modern premises, such as W H Smiths and Costa Coffee.

Beyond physical buildings, the Lady of Clare was also well known as a patron of the arts and collector of books. Her influence on English craftmanship at this time has been newly revisited by Frances Underhill, whose book “For Her Good Estate” was released in 2020.

Clare Castle became Elizabeth de Burgh’s main residence until her death in November 1360, aged sixty-five. In her will she allocated £200 towards her tomb at St Mary’s, Aldgate, London which, though now lost, is thought to have been lavish. Indeed, fifteen years later John Hastings, Earl of Pembroke, requested that his tomb in St Pauls be designed similar to hers. Sadly, although the de Clare’s succeeded in wealth, they failed to produce enough male heirs to continue the family name. Her only grandchild (by her son) was another Elizabeth, who would marry Lionel, son of Edward III. Some believe that this marriage is how the title ‘Duke of Clarence’ came to be.

Much of what we know of Elizabeth comes from manuscripts, as archaeology at Clare has so far proved largely inconclusive. During the 1866 construction of a railway station within the inner bailey of the remains of the Castle, an elaborate gold pectoral cross was found that came to be known as the ‘Clare Cross’. Whilst some have attributed it to Elizabeth, others believe the style of decoration suggests 15th century; leading to speculation that it was owned by Cecily, Duchess of York and mother of Edward IV and Richard III, who had briefly lived at the Castle.

‘Clare Cross’ or Clare Reliquary. Image used with kind permission of Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.rct.uk/collection/search#/1/collection/69738/clare-reliquary

Writing in 2020 during the Coronvirus lockdown, Sudbury, like the rest of the world, is in a period of transition. It is not known what shape Market Hill will take in a few years, but, with any luck, it will retain its timeless quality that has allowed it to serve the community faithfully for almost seven hundred years.

Market Hill in July 2020, the emptiest it has been in daytime for many decades.

 

Tonia Lawes

August 2020