How the legacy of the fabulously wealthy Lady of Clare lives on

Lady Elizabeth de Clare: This painting hangs in the Great Hall of the Cambridge college she founded.

Lady Elizabeth de Clare: This painting hangs in the Great Hall of the Cambridge college she founded. Picture: Clare College, University of Cambridge - Credit: Archant

Amid controversy over the role of Oxbridge in education, Don Black recalls how a Suffolk widow founded a Cambridge college and why the county still makes a big contribution to the university.

East Anglia’s wealthiest and most powerful woman of all time, Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady of Clare, came into her inheritance 700 years ago this month.

She founded Clare College, second oldest in Cambridge, and assembled possibly the most massive collections of estate and domestic accounts to survive in our national archive.

Elizabeth imported Bordeaux wine through Ipswich, bought fish from Dunwich and Maldon and enjoyed luxury furnishings in her boudoir at Clare Castle.

Her brother Gilbert had been killed by the Scots at Bannockburn, letting Elizabeth to inherit the lion’s share of the estate that the family had owned since its founder in England, Count Gilbert, fought with William the Conqueror in 1066.


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First cousin of Edward III, she married three times and was still only 27 when she began her long widowhood.

Her great wealth came mainly from Suffolk lands known as the ‘Honour of Clare’ that the king confirmed were hers in November 1317.

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It comprised seven bits of Suffolk, two of Norfolk, two of Essex and one of Hertfordshire, worth countless millions of pounds in today’s values but then even a farthing (a quarter old penny) was worth recording.

They were Clare castle and manor (valued at £170 and 19 shillings), Clare borough (£20 7s 6d), Hundon manor (£139 6s 8d), Lakenheath manor £15 16s 6d), Southwold manor (£15 7s 3d), Sudbury borough (£75 0s 2d), Woodhall manor in Sudbury (£33 2s one and a half p), Great Bircham manor (£18 1s 6 and a half p), Walsingham manor (£115), Great Bardfield manor (£124 18s 9d), Claret in Ashen manor (£18 1s 2 and a half p) and Standon manor (£66 8s 6p and a farthing).

Her income then totalled about £6,000, among English earls just six gathered more. Her accounts show only £1 paid in tax (sound familiar in 2017?), but lots more in church tithes and charity.

The king granted the Lady of Clare a licence to create Clare Hall at Cambridge with £40 in 1346, when only Peterhouse represented higher learning in Fenland.

Just why a small group of disaffected Oxford scholars should decamp to such a remote spot in the first place is still a mystery. The Lady evidently foresaw its potential.

Mysterious in its way is the one portrait believed to be of Elizabeth. Historian Norman Scarfe wrote this about it in describing Clare College for his Shell guide to Cambridgeshire: “In panelling behind the high table, a comic portrait of principal foundress Elizabeth de Clare recalls three centuries of the college before its present buildings .”

Comic? Well, that’s also what Elizabeth’s biographer Jennifer Ward thinks.

“It is an 18th or 19th imaginary portrait,” she believes. “I think it is too gentle for the real Elizabeth, who had a very determined personality.”

So it isn’t used in her scholarly book Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady of Clare.*

But I’m using it. Our elder granddaughter Alice, who has a very determined personality, recently became a Master of Science at Clare College and she’s among the gentlest young women I know.

The Lady of Clare “appears to have been a woman of singular enlightenment in a dark age, the statutes she gave to the college illustrating the liberal views she entertained of the proper scope and value of education,” wrote historian J R Wardale in 1899.

Her employment of the Latin phrase ‘stadium generale’, he added, “appears to be used as a place of study open to all.”

Could both he and the lady herself hinted that, eventually, universities would be open to women as well as men? Clare did so in 1972.

*Obtainable from Claire Barker, hon secretary, Suffolk Records Society, Westhorpe Lodge, Westhorpe, IP14 4TA; email Claire@ejbarker.co.uk, £20 plus £3 p & p.

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